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San Francisco ready to permit robots on city sidewalks

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But delivery bots are still barred from testing on most city streets

Just Eat And Starship Technologies Delivers World's First Takeaway By A Robot
A delivery robot in London.
Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Just Eat

San Francisco banned delivery robots from most city streets in December, but included some exceptions for testing autonomous courier bots in limited areas.

According to Tuesday’s legislation:

The following fees shall be established for Autonomous Delivery Device Testing permits:

• Application fees: for one device - $860; for two devices - $1,540; and for three devices - $1,995;

• Permit.extension fees: for one device - $555; for two devices - $101; and for three devices -$1,465; and

• For Referrals to Department of Public Health: The Department of Public Health may charge up to $191 per hour for referrals sent by Public Works.

But no bots have been able to roll yet because the city has not yet offered permits to developers who want to continue testing. On Tuesday the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 11-0 to begin the permitting process and told robot companies what they’ll have to pay.

Just Eat And Starship Technologies Delivers World's First Takeaway By A Robot Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Just Eat

Permits are good for 180 days and may be extended; however, extensions can’t add up to more than 180 additional days. Supervisor Norman Yee originally wanted to ban all such devices from public byways, telling Recode in 2017, “Our sidewalks are made for people, not robots.”

Yee backed off of a total ban and eventually amended the bill to allow for some limited testing.

“Tech was rolling out on our sidewalks with no policies,” Yee said of the law on Tuesday, noting that what he called an “innocuous but necessary piece of legislation” took nearly a year to complete.

Supervisor Malia Cohen told colleagues before the vote that the regulation was needed as technology improves.

“These bots on the streets, it’s the future, we need to figure out how we’re going to start to regulate and enforce regulations on autonomous vehicles on sidewalks,” said Cohen, adding, “This is important.”

Tuesday’s vote is not final and the law will not go into effect for some weeks after it passes, but given the unanimous backing it’s almost certain machines will take to the streets again within a month or two.