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San Francisco is considering legislation that would ban sidewalk delivery robots

Meanwhile, other states are passing laws broadly permitting the robots statewide.

Starship Technologies

States across the country are passing laws to permit the use of autonomous delivery robots statewide. But in San Francisco, a city globally renowned for its tech-savvy residents, local politicians are now considering legislation that would ban the use of the nascent technology citywide.

San Francisco supervisor Norman Yee proposed the new legislation today, following efforts his office made earlier this year to look into regulations that would govern the use of autonomous delivery robots. Yee worries that the robots aren’t safe, saying that seniors, people with disabilities and children won’t be able move out of the way quickly enough as these machines roll down city sidewalks at walking speed (around four miles per hour).

Yee says his office has talked with various robot delivery companies, including Dispatch, Marble and Starship, but that his discussions with them weren’t convincing.

“Our streets and our sidewalks are made for people, not robots,” said Supervisor Yee in an interview with Recode. “This is consistent with how we operate in the city, where we don’t allow bikes or skateboards on sidewalks.” Yee said he is also concerned about the delivery robots taking away jobs.

One company, Marble, launched a pilot program with Yelp’s food delivery service, Yelp Eat24, last month and is already operating in San Francisco’s Mission and Potrero Hill districts. Another company, Starship Technologies, conducted a trial run in San Francisco’s Richmond district last fall.

Although the robots are currently supervised by humans, the idea behind them is that one day they won’t be. Starship is already operating — with human supervisors — in Redwood City, Calif., a city in Silicon Valley about 30 miles south of San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., where the company’s robots deliver food for the on-demand ordering services DoorDash and Postmates.

Recode reached out to three ground delivery robot makers, Dispatch, Marble and Starship Technologies, but none of the companies responded by the time of publication.*

The new robot ban proposal in San Francisco comes as two states, Virginia and Idaho, recently passed laws to broadly permit the use of driverless delivery rovers. Other states, like Wisconsin and Florida, are currently considering near identical legislation, which allows sidewalk delivery robots to use crosswalks and sidewalks statewide without a person walking alongside them.

Still, the laws all still require a person to be somewhere in the loop remotely in case something goes awry. The Idaho and Virginia legislation that has passed also permits municipalities to craft their own version of the law, like how fast the robots are allowed to go, or to ban them entirely, like what Supervisor Yee in San Francisco is proposing.

The wave of state legislation condoning the use of ground robots is being championed by Starship Technologies, an Estonian company that was started by two Skype co-founders, Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, who announced in January that the company had raised $17.2 million in a funding round. Likewise, Marble shared it raised $4 million in its seed funding round this year, and Dispatch received $2 million in seed funding from Andreessen Horowitz last year.

Yee said that he spoke with a representative from the San Francisco Police Department who had serious concerns about how the police department would enforce any regulations on the robots, like about how fast the machines are allowed to travel or count how many are being used at any given time.

“I came to the conclusion that if we can’t enforce regulations, then we should just ban them,” said Supervisor Yee.

“I think these robots would make sense, like on a Google campus or a university campus, where it’s a pretty enclosed environment,” he continued.

* Update: Starship Technologies and Marble have returned Recode’s request for comment.

Matt Delaney, the CEO of Marble, the robot delivery company that’s currently running a pilot program with Yelp’s food delivery service Eat24 in San Francisco, says that he shares supervisor Yee’s commitment to safety.

“We manufacture and test our robots in San Francisco,” Delaney said.

A spokesperson from Starship says told Recode the company has received “positive feedback unanimously from cities we’re currently operating in around the world."

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