May 2019

All the way back in December, I wrote about how various companies, including Amazon (in partnership with Toyota), Postmates, Domino’s and Kroger were all working on using CAVs and drones to deliver goods to consumers. Since then there have been a number of news stories on similar projects across the globe, which deserve some attention, as you’ll see in this, the first of three posts:

On the Ground

In my December post I talked about Postmates’ testing of delivery robots that could bring products directly to your door. This winter similar ‘bots were deployed on the campuses of the University of the Pacific (sponsored by PepsiCo), and George Mason University (via start-up Starship Technologies and food-services giant Sodexo). College campuses, which tend to feature greater walkability and an always snack-craving populace, seem to be the perfect testing ground for such systems. And the robots seem to have made a difference in the eating habits, at least at George Mason – with an additional 1,500 breakfast orders being delivered via robot. This may be due to the fact the robots were integrated into the campus meal plan, meaning students weren’t just able to order snacks, but could order full meals and pay for them via their meal plan.  

While these delivery services may be seen as saviors to hung-over college students in need of a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, the expansion of such programs does raise issues. Just as ridesharing has changed the way cities have to manage curb space, delivery ‘bots raise questions of sidewalk management. Just how much of public space should we cede to commercial use? How will the ‘bots be programmed to “share the road” with pedestrians. Of course, that may not be as big of an issue in more sprawling American cites that don’t have the same density of foot traffic. They’ll also have to content with being messed with by humans, as was the case in this video, where a ‘bot’s cameras were intentionally covered in snow (there is a happy ending, as seen in the footage – after a good Samaritan cleaned off  the camera the ‘bot continues on its way, after saying “thank you!” to its’ human helper). In an attempt to get ahead of these issues San Francisco banned sidewalk delivery ‘bots in 2017, and has only slowly opened up room for testing. Will other cities follow suit? Or will they open the floodgates? Currently, the California DMV is considering new rules on delivery ‘bots and car-sized autonomous delivery vehicles, so look for a follow-up blog once those are out.

Given my continued interest in data collection and privacy, (an interest echoed in more recent blog posts by Kevin – available here, here, and here) I’d be remiss to not flag those issues here. (those issues also come up in the context of aerial deliveries, discussed in our next post). Not only would sidewalk based delivery ‘bots collect data on the items you order and when, they could potentially collect data about your home or its surrounding environment (think back to when Google was caught collecting wi-fi data with its’ Street View cars).

In our next post – aerial delivery drones!

Many have claimed that EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) would “kill AI”. Shortly after its entry into force at the end of May 2018, the New York Times was already carrying industry concerns: “the new European data privacy legislation is so stringent that it could kill off data-driven online services and chill innovations like driverless cars, tech industry groups warn.” Following that train of thought, news outlets, general and specialized alike, have since then piled up on how such regulations on “data” would generally be harmful to innovation.

To be sure, other voices make themselves heard too. When trust in a technology is at stake, heralds of that technology understand that appearing to embrace regulation is a good PR move. Yet, beyond what could be seen as a cynical attitude, there are the pragmatists too. For them, regulation is a given, and with the right mindset, it can be transformed into an advantage.

This is such a mindset one could expect for European Union institutions. Speaking at a tech conference in Slovenia last April, EU Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc painted a rosy future for European transportation. Not only is Europe ready for automation, but it is embracing it. Already, car manufacturers must integrate certain automation components to all their new cars, such as lane assistance, distraction sensors and a black box used to “determine the cause of accidents.” And then not only cars, but ships, planes, trains, even drones are part of the EU’s vision for an integrated transportation system, as part of the “mobility as a service,” or MaaS vision. To support that MaaS (all-electric and paperless,) a “European GPS,” Galileo, and widespread 5G deployment, with even a priority on rural areas!

Is this all fluff? Far from seeking refuge from overbearing European red tape, most European AI and automation leaders see themselves in a “tortoise and the hare” paradigm: let the US innovators go fast and break things; we’ll take steady measured steps forward, but we’ll get there, and maybe even before the US. This is what a recent Bloomberg feature article on the booming European automation scene. Concretely, what are these steps? As far as AVs go, the first and main one is shared data sharing. Intense AV testing might be Arizona’s and California’s go-to model. But what is the use case for Waymo’s car beyond the dry, wide, and dunny streets of Phoenix? What about dense urban environments with narrow streets, like in Europe? Or snowy, low-density countryside roads, of which there are plenty in the US during the winter months? Safety in mass deployment will come from the capacity to aggregate everyone’s data, not just your own.

The most surprising part is that this push to open the “walled gardens” of the large OEMs does not even come from the government, but from tech firms. One of them, Austrian, is working an open AV operating system, with the intention to keep safety at the core of its business philosophy. As its founder told Bloomberg, “open to information sharing” is a requirement for safety. With such an angle, one is not surprised to read that the main challenge the company faces is the standardization of data flows; a tough challenge. But isn’t what innovation is about?

While the clever scientists won’t give the press all their tricks, many appear confident, stating simply that working with such regulations simply requires a “different approach.”