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San Francisco Declares War on Food Delivery Robots

Sidewalk safety and jobs are the top concerns

Starship Technologies

America, it seems, is not ready for the inevitable robot takeover. Some cities, such as D.C. and San Francisco, are already host to small carrier bots that keep food hot (or cool) while transporting it to its destination. But San Francisco, one of the most tech-forward cities in the world, is trying to slam the breaks on food delivery robots.

Norman Yee, a long-time San Francisco supervisor, proposed new legislation this week that would ban autonomous robots from city streets, Recode reports. Yee believes the bots could take jobs away from citizens. He also says the small unmanned bots move too quickly and therefore could be safety risks for children, people with disabilities, and seniors because they wouldn’t be able to move out of the robot’s way fast enough.

“Our streets and our sidewalks are made for people, not robots,” Yee told Recode. “This is consistent with how we operate in the city, where we don’t allow bikes or skateboards on sidewalks.” When asked if he thought the bots could safely run in a bike lane, Yee agreed it was something to think about. “Maybe in the future there will be robot lanes,” he told SFGate.

All of the bots currently on the market — including those made by two SF-based companies, Dispatch and Marble (which has partnered with Yelp’s Eat24 food delivery service) — are equipped with sensors and GPS technology that, at least in theory, prevents them from running into people or inanimate objects. Yee told Recode he’d spoken with representatives for these companies but said their claims “weren’t convincing.”

A representative for Starship Technologies, the maker of a robot that’s currently in use in London, the Bay Area, and D.C., told Recode the company had received “positive feedback unanimously from cities we’re currently operating in around the world."

“We look forward to working with the supervisors, neighborhood groups and others to craft smart regulation that balances the needs of pedestrian safety, local businesses, manufacturing and innovation,” Marble CEO and co-founder Matt Delaney said in a statement to SFGate.

Meanwhile, Starship, which is based in Estonia, has been jumping ahead of competitors by working with lawmakers in states across the country to preemptively pass legislation to allow autonomous robots to make deliveries. The company has successfully helped pass laws in Virginia (including D.C.), Idaho, and Wisconsin. Unfortunately for its competitors, Starship guided those laws through with language that specifies acceptable robot sizes and shapes. Because only Starship’s robots fit those specifics, they’ve essentially locked out the competition, Recode reported last month.

A pro-robot delivery bill has been proposed in Florida, but is still pending; city-specific laws have been passed in San Carlos and Redwood City, California.

It’s still sort of a wild west when it comes to bot deliveries though. It wasn’t that long ago that retail giants like Amazon and restaurant brands like TGI Friday’s thought drones were the future of food delivery. But in 2014 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) squashed those tech dreams by enforcing a law that made it very difficult to obtain a permit to fly a commercial drone. The FAA has since relaxed those rules a bit, but companies have already spent the last few years pivoting in the direction of small wheeled vehicles. Are robots about to face the same fate as drones, or will humanity eventually accept its inevitable bot-filled future? As long as the lo mein arrives hot and on time, we’ll probably be fine.

San Francisco Is Considering Legislation That Would Ban Sidewalk Delivery Robots [Recode]
San Francisco Could Ban Sidewalk Delivery Robots [SFGate]