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Legislators, Don’t Thwart Robot Delivery

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Legislators, Don’t Thwart Robot Delivery

May 2, 2017

Robots may never be able to replace many of the tasks that humans perform, but making deliveries is one area where the technology already exists. If companies are not impeded in their efforts to improve technology, semi-autonomous robots could soon be bringing people their groceries and packages across the country.

At the beginning of the year, robots started to make deliveries in two pilot programs to develop the technology’s capabilities in a real-world setting. These robots are not controlled by anyone, and capable of carrying light to medium loads to their destination mostly by navigating sidewalks.

Customers can track deliveries on an app, and upon arrival the company sends them a custom link to unlock the robot’s hatch and get their items. Autonomous delivery could offer restaurants, grocery stores and other retailers a way to offer delivery without stretching already thin budgets.

One major concern with new technologies of this nature is that the rush to regulate will inhibit their development. In this case, another problem has arisen. Policymakers seeking to create permissive frameworks inadvertently lock out some potential entrants. As Recode recently reported, Virginia and Idaho have passed legislation permitting robot delivery statewide.

While this seems like a positive development, their reporting revealed that one robot delivery company, Starship Technologies, assisted with the formulation of the legislation. These bills included limits on how much the robots could weigh: 50 pounds in Virginia and 80 pounds in Idaho. Legislators are considering a similar bill in Wisconsin with an 80-pound limit. In Florida, a bill with a 50-pound limit has been introduced.

More states will be sure to follow in the introduction of bills to allow the operation of autonomous delivery machines statewide. If these bills are any indication, they will also include weight limits.

Some competitors, such as Marble or Gravis, have robots that do not meet this threshold. For now, the bills as written prohibit them from operating in these states.

Starship denies that they influenced legislators to include weight-limit provisions to lock out competitors. Company representatives claim Starship was unaware of the parameters of the other company’s robots when they began their efforts.

The weight limits also consider safety estimates because the robots would operate on sidewalks with pedestrians. These concerns could have influenced where legislators decided to place the threshold. Virginia Rep. Ron Villanueva told Recode that the 50-pound limit was “what would be the most approachable and safest route that a pedestrian would feel safe with this robot.”

The legislation does allow for local jurisdictions to alter the provisions of the law, from the weight limit to creating windows of time when the robots cannot operate. This local exception process could prove too costly for some would-be entrants.

Considerations of pedestrian safety are reasonable, but erring on the side of setting the weight limit too low could stifle competition. Setting a higher threshold statewide but letting municipalities raise it if they wish could avoid this problem.

Companies and customers could both benefit from robot delivery. Legislation that would permit robot delivery statewide is a laudable aim and far preferable to operating from a precautionary principle that would limit their operation.

Policymakers should take care that they do not include provisions, such as weight limits or wheel requirements , that would reduce competition or give influential companies an advantage.. Creating a de facto monopoly through regulation would limit the rate of development and innovation in the robot delivery sphere.

The focus for legislators should be on fostering a regulatory framework that is permissive, flexible, and allows for a healthy degree of competition so new technologies can develop and thrive.

Charles Hughes is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on twitter @CharlesHHughes

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