Rush Delivery: Robots Take Over Sidewalks (Part 1 of 3)

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!