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Santa’s Little Robots Banned in San Francisco

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Santa’s Little Robots Banned in San Francisco

December 18, 2017

If busy people in San Francisco were hoping for a helping hand from delivery robots in the holiday season, they are out of luck. After a previous attempt was voted down, San Francisco city supervisor Norman Yee’s proposal to impose a virtual ban on robot delivery in the city passed unanimously. The city had previously served as a hub of delivery robot testing and pilot programs, but now the operations and scope of delivery robots will be severely curtailed, and Santa’s little delivery helpers will not be around for the holidays.

“Not every innovation is all that great for society,” said supervisor Yee. He described these regulations as the “first and most restrictive” of their kind. The ordinance is anything but praiseworthy: it errs too much on the side of precaution and could stifle innovation and the development of new technologies that would improve people's lives. Yee stressed that sidewalks in the city were for people, not robots. Imagine the lost opportunities if years ago regulators had insisted that roads were for horses, not cars.

Delivery robots are still in their nascent stage. At this point, most companies are still in the testing phase, and hordes of delivery robots are not overrunning the sidewalks, Yee’s fear in justifying the new regulations. The limited scope so far is due to the need to develop the technology to be able to adapt to an environment with so many variables. Producers are still trying to figure out the ways these new bots can be used to improve productivity or efficiency. Many ways they might be useful, beyond basic delivery, have not yet been discovered. Implementing such severe restrictions at this early stage of their development increases the risk that those uses will never be found.

Yee himself offers one such potential use, a robot that could assist with picking up used needles from the street to reduce risks for pedestrians. Collection and tidying of this type could be well within the scope of the capabilities of sidewalk robots in the years to come, but ordinances such as San Francisco’s make that outcome less likely. 

Under the new ordinance, the number of robot permits will be limited to three per company, and only nine in total. Robots will be restricted to certain zones, have a maximum speed of three miles per hour, and require a human operator within 30 feet during testing. Delivery robots are also required to emit a warning noise for pedestrians while in operation and have headlights.  Even with the long list of restrictions, the new ordinance is a step back from Yee’s previous effort, which sought to impose an outright ban on delivery robots in the city.

The “compromise” will be cold comfort to businesses or customers who would have been interested in making use of the new delivery options. The new rules leave little space or use for robot delivery companies to continue to operate in the city, or learn anything interesting about the capabilities of their machines. Instead, operators will have to look elsewhere for places that would allow them to test out their new products.

Fortunately, other states are doing a better job of finding a balance between oversight and the need to give companies room to develop their products. Idaho and Virginia recently passed legislation permitting robot delivery throughout the state, although some of the provisions such as weight limits should continue to be reviewed to ensure that the regulations are not inadvertently creating prohibitive barriers to entry for new companies. For months, Washington D.C. residents have seen the delivery robots rolling down the sidewalks as part of Starship Technologies’ pilot program, complete with human monitors. So far the main disruption seems to have been people slowing down to take pictures of the robots trundling along.

Companies will be attracted to places that seek to foster, not deter, innovation and the development of new technologies. San Francisco has been front and center for so many of the recent tech developments, and many major companies have their headquarters in the Bay Area. The new ordinance imposing heavy-handed restrictions on delivery robots could be a sign that this will not always be the case.

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

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