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San Francisco bans robots from most sidewalks

Delivery drones permitted only in low-foot traffic zones after Tuesday vote

A delivery robot on the job in Washington DC.
A delivery robot on the job in Washington DC.
Photo by Ohpuu/Wikicommons

It’s 2017. And in the Bay Area, robots currently drive cars, conduct home tours, clobber each other in prize fights, and guard local dogs. But machines must step lightly if they try to step onto a San Francisco sidewalk.

On Tuesday the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in favor of strict regulation that bars autonomous delivery robots from most city streets.

The ordinance, created by supervisor Norman Yee, allows the Department of Public Works to issue permits for the testing of “Autonomous Delivery Devices” with a long list of rules in place, including but not limited to:

Autonomous delivery devices would not be allowed to travel more than three miles per hour.

A human operator would be required to remain within 30 feet of the device during testing.

Permittees would only be allowed to test autonomous delivery devices on sidewalks that (A) are located in zoning districts designated for Production, Design, and Repair (“PDR”) uses, (B) are not identified as a high-injury corridor.

Autonomous delivery devices would be prohibited from transporting waste or hazardous materials (such as flammables or ammunition)

Autonomous delivery devices would be required to emit a warning noise while in operation.

When not in use for Testing, each permittee would be required to dock autonomous delivery devices on private property and not on a city sidewalk or in the public right of way.

Although a long list, it’s more forgiving than the previous proposal, in which Yee simply wanted to ban delivery robots from San Francisco altogether. Back then, he called the ban a move to protect public space from encroachment by private companies.

On Tuesday Yee sounded a bit more conciliatory, calling the new law a compromise, “To keep ours sidewalks safe for pedestrians while trying to support those companies that want to do business in SF.”

Yee added: “And by the way, I understand this particular legislation doesn’t solve problems in the future. All I’m trying to do is get ahead of the curve.”

Indeed, as Supervisor Malia Cohen pointed out, the bill is already outdated, as it only applies to delivery robots. Other sorts of machine workers are already popping up in the city, like the alarming, egg-shaped security robot that now protects sleeping dogs at the SPCA shelter.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin recalled the city’s problems keeping up with new technology in the past, comparing delivery bots to ride-hailing companies and Google buses.

Peskin said, “Up until now we tried to regulate too little too late. It’s better [...] we’re not chasing this thing later.”

Delivery bots are already on the move in other cities. An Estonian company put 20 autonomous food delivery units on the streets of Washington DC in March. The bots weigh roughly 35 pounds and scoot along sidewalks at four miles per hour while waving a red flag to make sure pedestrians see them coming.