One San Francisco official’s war on R2-D2

Commentary: Research Analyst Alan McQuinn examines a recent controversy to argue that hasty policymaking around emerging technologies is self-defeating.

One permanent fixture in the Star Wars universe is the droid population, a host of service robots navigating around the fantasy’s cities, chirping messages, fixing vehicles, and translating alien languages. Now, as if straight off the screen, several companies are creating autonomous delivery robots that use cameras, ultrasonic sensors, and lasers to avoid obstacles and deliver pizza, flowers, or other small packages. Unfortunately, while these robots have the potential to reduce the costs and environmental impacts of delivering packages, some officials are threatening to ban them because of unwarranted concerns about safety and oversight.

In San Francisco, for example, Board Supervisor Norman Yee recently proposed legislation to ban all autonomous delivery robots from the city’s sidewalks, citing fears that the devices — which travel at around four miles an hour — could run into children, seniors, and people with disabilities. Yee based his rationale for the ban on how the city treats bikes and skateboards, which also are barred from sidewalks — although proponents argue delivery robots are more like dollies, which are legal on sidewalks. To enforce the ban, he proposed criminal, civil, and administrative penalties, including fines up to $1,000 plus six months in jail for operating robots in the city.

Not surprisingly, Yee’s bill encountered stiff opposition from the local business community, so he has retracted it for the time being to reconsider the language. But whatever the next steps, Yee says his safety and oversight concerns remain.

First, he worries delivery robots could strike pedestrians on the sidewalk. But these concerns are unwarranted. Not only are autonomous delivery robots highly visible and easily to avoid, but they come equipped with sensors and cameras designed to recognize and avoid pedestrians. Moreover, they are only partially autonomous. An operator oversees each robot and can take control in an emergency.


Second, Yee has called for an outright ban, rather than a set of rules for robots on sidewalks, because he concluded “it didn’t seem very enforceable if we were to regulate it.” Yet police routinely ticket pedestrians for activities such as jaywalking or loitering, so it seems far-fetched to claim that rules for robots on sidewalks could not be similarly enforced. If robots were required to display appropriate registration and contact information, then police could easily supervise their conduct.

Fortunately, officials in most other cities and states across the country do not share Yee’s concerns. FloridaIdahoVirginiaWisconsin, and the District of Columbia already have laws on the books permitting autonomous robot delivery, but limiting robots’ weight and speed. DC’s laws, which officials passed in 2016, also limit where the devices can venture, restricting them from parts of the city with the most foot traffic. While these laws require humans to supervise robots in some capacity to avoid errors, none ban the robots entirely. If other cities and states are creating legislation that allows companies to experiment with this technology while protecting the public, surely San Francisco likewise can craft innovation-friendly rules — especially since delivery robot startup Marble is located in the city and already providing good jobs for San Francisco residents.

Supervisor Yee’s proposed ban is a textbook case of jumping the gun to regulate based on misguided concerns about an emerging technology rather than waiting for the technology to mature. This type of policymaking is self-defeating. By reducing delivery fees and eliminating the need to tip, delivery robots cut costs for both the businesses delivering products and the buyers receiving them. In fact, the company Starship Technologies hopes these robots eventually will cut the cost of local, same-day delivery to $1. But keeping delivery costs high by banning robots would be most burdensome for people with mobility issues who rely on delivery services to bring them food, medicine and other goods, such as older residents and people with disabilities — exactly the populations Supervisor Lee is purportedly trying to help.

This whole debate harkens back to when the introduction of automobiles sparked similarly irrational fears. Some thought automobiles could cause insanity while others saw them as noisy and dangerous compared to horses. Several local governments went so far as trying to ban them, but most of these bans were short-lived once people realized the value cars offered.

Policymakers should reflect on this and other lessons from the past and avoid restricting a promising new technology like delivery bots before it has time to mature. The more appropriate approach is to work with local agencies, safety officials, and companies to craft legislation permitting this technology to operate with modest safety restrictions. And voters should wave off heavy-handed enforcement by telling their elected officials, as a Jedi might: “These are not the policies you are looking for.”

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