In something of a reversal for San Francisco, a city that has served as a petri dish for disruptive innovations in recent years, lawmakers this week passed strict regulations to reduce the number of delivery robots that technology startups have introduced to the city’s sidewalks.
“Not every innovation is all that great for society.” said the San Franciscosupervisor Norman Yee, who authored the legislation. “If we don’t value our society, if we don’t value getting the chance to go the store without being run over by a robot … what is happening?”
Yee believes that his legislation is the “first and most restrictive” of its kind. Robot permits will be capped at three per company, and nine total at any given time for the entire city. The robots will now only be allowed to operate within certain industrial neighborhoods, on streets with 6ft-wide sidewalks, and must be accompanied by a human chaperone at all times.
It’s a far cry from other jurisdictions, such as Washington DC, Virginia, Idaho and San Francisco’s neighboring Redwood City, where lawmakers have acted to legalize sidewalk robots.
But in San Francisco, delivery robots have quietly taken to the sidewalks of over the past year. Companies including Marble and Starship are developing “robots as a service” business models, whereby food delivery apps contract with the robot companies to perform their deliveries.
At scale, the robots could significantly cut down on delivery vehicles (and labor costs), but they also take up space on sidewalks, where bicycles, Segways, and sitting or lying humans are already banned. Since taking on the issue, Yee said that his office had become something of a repository for photographs taken by angry residents of the robots clogging the sidewalks amid baby strollers, bus stops, street vendors, and pedestrians.
A coalition of residents, pedestrian advocates, and activists for seniors and people with disabilities lambasted the robots as “aggressively entrepreneurial wet dreams” and “the future Ubers of the sidewalk”.
“Sidewalks, I believe, are not playgrounds for the new remote controlled toys of the clever to make money and eliminate jobs.” said Lorraine Petty, an activist with the community group Senior and Disability Action. “They’re for us to walk.”
George Wooding, a local activist who uses a wheelchair, added: “You do not need a robot to deliver a ham sandwich. If you want one that badly, just go down and get it yourself.”
The hearing also saw significant support for sidewalk robots, including from restaurant owners who have used the robot delivery service, some of the robot companies, and various business associations. (None of the robot companies responded to repeated inquiries from the Guardian.)
Supporters of the robots touted their environmental friendliness, job creation (“While operating the robots, I have a full time job with benefits.” said Adam Schear, a robot chaperone for Marble), and potential for performing tasks with more social benefit than restaurant take-out, such as delivering medicine to homebound patients.
At times, the debate turned positively philosophical.
“Are robots necessary?” asked San Francisco resident Lori Liederman. “Maybe it isn’t just our safety that’s in jeopardy. Maybe it’s our humanity as well.”
In the technology hub of world, post facto efforts to crack down on Google’s commuter buses, Uber, and Airbnb have largely failed, as vocal and impassioned activists lost out against the popular products (and deep pockets) of the tech industry.
“When it comes to being proactive about the development of commonsense regulations for commuter shuttles or the sharing economy, such as Airbnb or Uber, somehow we have sent the signal that it is acceptable to act now and ask for forgiveness later.” Yee said at a public hearing on the legislation in October. “That is not an example of a city that leads.”