Robots in Space: Sharing the Sidewalk with Autonomous Delivery Vehicles
4 Pages Posted: 28 Mar 2019 Last revised: 30 Apr 2020
Date Written: March 5, 2019
Industrial robots originated in mid-Twentieth Century factories where they increased the efficiency of manufacturing. Their implementation was an extension of earlier industrial automation such as the introduction of Henry Ford’s mechanized assembly line in 1913. In Ford’s assembly line, a rope-and-pully system advanced each vehicle from one worker to the next allowing each worker to remain stationary. Half a century later, in 1961, the first robotic arm, created by Unimate, was introduced to auto manufacturing, which further increased efficiency. More recently, following advancements in artificial intelligence and sensor technology, industrial robots have acquired greater autonomy and transformed the logistics and delivery industries. Like Ford’s assembly line, and Unimate’s robotic arm, Amazon’s fulfillment center robots, originally designed by Kiva Robotics, reduced the daily steps workers must take. Instead of walking through aisles to stock warehouse shelves or retrieve products for distribution, workers remain stationary, and the robots bring the products to them. Today, with even greater autonomy than their predecessors, robots are migrating out of factories, warehouses, and fulfillment centers and into neighborhood streets, sidewalks, and skies. The technological advancements that allowed robots to automate private industrial spaces, such as machine learning and sophisticated sensors, now enable autonomous delivery robots (ADVs) to travel independently in the outside world and deliver packages, meals, groceries, and other retail purchases to people’s homes.
This article focuses on the evolution of ADVs used for “last-mile delivery,” the final step of the delivery process that ends at the customer’s door. It breaks ADVs down into four different categories: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or “drones”); self-driving cars; autonomous delivery pods; and sidewalk delivery robots, which are sometimes called personal delivery robots (PDRs). The article describes the risks and benefits of deploying ADVs for last-mile delivery and analyzes the laws and federal agencies that regulate them. Last mile delivery is generally thought to be “the most expensive and time-consuming part of the shipping process” because it is the most personalized and unpredictable. Industry estimates suggest that last-mile delivery can account for up to 53 percent of total shipping costs. ADV manufacturers claim they can reduce delivery time, increase efficiency, cut costs, improve the consumer experience, decrease traffic congestion, reduce carbon emissions, assist seniors and people with disabilities who may have decreased mobility, and democratize access to logistics and delivery resources for small businesses allowing them to compete with large corporations. Critics claim ADVs may negatively impact public health by encouraging inactivity, obstructing roads and sidewalks and impairing the mobility of seniors and people with disabilities, and endangering public safety due to their potential to collide with people who are not agile enough to get out of the way. ADVs may also reduce the need for human delivery workers, cause noise pollution, violate people’s privacy, and represent the increasing privatization of public spaces such as sidewalks. Though all ADVs will be discussed, my focus is primarily on sidewalk delivery robots because they are the newest and fastest growing segment of the ADV industry, and they face the fewest legal and regulatory hurdles. Particular attention will be paid to the differences between the laws that regulate sidewalk delivery robots and the laws that govern other types of ADVs. The article concludes by drawing lessons from the regulation of UAVs and self-driving cars to propose legislation to regulate sidewalk delivery robots that will increase their safety and utility while limiting the privatization of public spaces.
Keywords: robots, drones, sidewalk delivery robots, personal delivery vehicles, self-driving cars, autonomous vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles, UAV, drones, Starship, Kiwi, Marble, Nuro, Amazon, BoxBot
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