Autonomous Delivery Crawlers: A Policy Perspective

Much has been written about the possibilities of full sized autonomous vehicles (AVs), including by me. There’s a lot of material covering delivery drones or small unmanned aerial vehicles (sUAVs) – which I haven’t covered here but have spoken about in presentations to engineers at CMU. The thing is that most packages, takeout, or other deliverable items are much too small to waste an entire car, and a delivery drone is very limited by its energy requirements and capacity. AVs are better off for big things and sUAVs for rural and suburban deliveries where the place delivering to or the place the delivery is coming from are relatively distant from a main road.

Let’s say you’re ordering takeout from a restaurant that’s within 5 miles of easily traversed road or sidewalk, or getting a package and the depot is within 10 miles of where you live. An AV is an extravagance and if everyone used sUAVs, the air would be full of them. Additionally, if there were large buildings around and the sUAV traffic is limited to flying between them, the airborne traffic jams could get severe. If you’re using a delivery robot, it’s going to be a crawler. I use the term not because they’re all on treads – most of them are wheeled – but because of the relative speeds and location. It’s a good word to differentiate autonomous delivery robots that are smaller than a car and travel on land from their airborne and human-occupiable counterparts. They’re little critters that run around with pizzas and tacos inside, ferrying small packages from one place to another. Some have a range of 20+ miles and are quite large like the Robby 2 and others are shorter haul robots that can fit a couple pizzas like the Starship.

Images courtesy of Robby and Starship

Starship Technologies has been especially quick off the mark when it comes to regulation. By July of 2017, Starship had succeeded in getting five States to pass legislation allowing delivery crawlers to operate on sidewalks. Not only that, but they took things a step further – getting the legislation to include a maximum weight limit that froze out one of their competitors. Usually an industry has to be much more mature before companies start weaponizing regulation to stop competitors, though it may be a coincidence in this case. Then again, it may not. Starship seems leaps and bounds ahead of anyone else in the media and in the testing sphere, despite not being the first company to test on public sidewalks.

On the flipside, San Francisco almost completely banned crawlers, relegating them to industrial districts for tests only and only going 3 mph on sidewalks at least six feet wide. The regulation also required operators to be within 30 feet of the robot, which all companies already did. This appeared to be spearheaded by Norman Yee, supervisor for SF’s 7th District. Supervisor Yee has had clashes with tech companies in the past and expressed concerns about traffic, job loss, and wealth inequality in regards to autonomous machines. This didn’t stop Starship, which pivoted in SF from transporting from businesses to private homes and offices to doing deliveries in office parks. This includes traveling unsupervised on the 4.3 acre Intuit campus in Mountain View where the robot delivers food and office supplies. Starship had good reason to be unruffled by the ban in one city given how welcoming other States had been, and their reception in DC where they’d been testing since 2017. The delivery robot industry recently got legislation passed in DC to permanently allow them to operate.

In fact, ‘unruffled’ is Starship’s attitude towards everything in the public space. While other companies tend towards quietly testing and making deals with service providers to deliver their food, Starship’s leadership enjoys showing how chill they are about everything. When reports surfaced about people kicking the robot, they responded that if that was how people needed to handle their anger management then fine. The robot was tougher than a foot and if things got really rough, its cameras, siren, and GPS meant that no one was getting away with beating up the robot and not paying for it.

Though San Francisco’s reaction was precipitous, it may not have been unjustified. The public have shown very positive attitudes towards delivery robots, especially ones that assist human carriers. If we use helper robots instead of fully autonomous delivery crawlers, then that will add to sidewalk congestion for sure. If we go with mostly crawlers, there will still be an uptick in sidewalk usage since many delivery services use bicycles, and there will likely be a general increase in the use of delivery services since they will probably be cheaper and more convenient. It’s a pretty clear case of the Tragedy of the Commons. Absent a clear cut reason not to – like a law or obvious liability issues – the sidewalk is taken up by more people and robots over time and eventually becomes difficult to navigate. At the moment, it seems very likely that humans will win this fight wherever it crops up because sidewalks were obviously meant for pedestrian traffic, and small slow moving robots won’t get priority over that.

The question is: where do the robots go? Like the shared electric scooters now proliferating in cities, delivery robots often go too fast for pedestrian paths (or take up too much sidewalk space), and too slow for car lanes or even bike lanes. Bike lanes themselves have had a very rocky climb towards prevalence in cities, remaining sparse, dangerous, and often nonexistent in many municipalities. The author has lived in two suburbs that didn’t even have sidewalks. How, then, can robots expect to get their own artery when human piloted vehicles are still waiting for their bike and scooter paths?

The answer may lie with another set of robots. The specter of autonomous vehicles looms in almost any discussion of future transit, and here they are again. We’ll assume that roads won’t get wider, nor will people stop walking on sidewalks. Then that means reallocating street space.

The promise – and threat – of AVs is that they will reduce or entirely remove the need for on-street parking since they can drop people off and then go on to their next task or a remote parking location. Let’s assume this is true. In that case all the on street parking will be up for grabs. I expect that the immediate demand will be for bike lanes, but with the loss of revenue, cities may have other ideas. They might require AVs to report how much they drive and then pay a toll based on their city street usage. However, that might not work out to be enough. Cities might also put in a toll for small delivery robots and let them have the onstreet parking lane instead of cyclists and scooters. It’s not likely, but it’s possible in some places. Maybe AVs will somehow reduce traffic so much that multiple lanes will be opened up for bikes and robots. A lot of things can happen.

The truth is that there are many possible scenarios, but no likely ones. The Boring Company wants to put cars on skates underground and skate them from garages to hyperloop arteries. I was going to observe that since robots don’t need air, sunlight, or as much overhead space, they’d go well in the tunnels, which would also help protect them and their cargo from the weather. However, it seems like Elon Musk wants to put us in the tunnels and the robots up on street level. Personally, I think that sounds like we’re training the robots to seek a dystopian future where they get to have parks and we’re stuck living underground, but that’s just me.

I remember a brief span after wheeled bookbags first came out. Everyone started wheeling their bags. Then it turned out that this put way too much extra stuff on the sidewalk, annoyed people, and generally got in the way so much that everyone went back to backpacks on backs. Sidewalks are congested in a lot of places, and unless/until they become quite inexpensive, these robots are going to have trouble operating where businesses can realistically buy one. Giving them their own space when bikes and scooters can’t get it in a lot of places will only increase friction, and the hypothetical space savings from AVs will probably go to bikes and parkland rather than convenience droids. They make a lot of sense for indoor use, but I think the cities – like rural areas – belong to the sUAV. In well run suburbs, there might be a cost-effective use case. Low enough foot traffic in a highly centralized market district could mean delivery robot utilization makes sense. I lived in Bloomington, Indiana for a few years, and given the quality of the food on the main street and the relatively compact residential section with well laid out, underutilized sidewalks, a handful of delivery robots shared by the various restaurants might do well. Not expecting to see them out in Odon or New York except as novelties, though. They’d run out of sidewalk in Odon and be run off the sidewalk in New York. Though New Yorkers might look at the robots that are moving consistently with traffic, and then at the tourists blocking people’s path and decide they like the robot better.

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