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Delivery robots are finally coming to SF

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But only for tests, not for service—yet

A boxy yellow delivery robot with circular eyes on the front.
Postmates’ new robot, Serve.
Courtesy Postmates

San Francisco sidewalks will have to make room for a new breed of pedestrian in the near future, as the Verge reports that SF-based delivery service Postmates will soon procure a first-in-the-city permit to test delivery robots on public byways.

It’s not a done deal yet, but Postmates seems confident that its automated delivery robot, Serve, will hit the streets sooner rather than later.

It wasn’t that long ago that now-Board of Supervisors President Norman Yee wanted to ban all similar devices—which are already roving the streets in places like Berkeley and Redwood City—declaring “our sidewalks are for people, not robots.”

Yee eventually relented and changed his 2017 legislation to allow some limited SF tests runs minus actual delivery service (but no actual delivery service yet).

SF Public Works says that robots and their operators face a significant number of restrictions in the city, not limited to the following:

Permits are valid for no longer than 180 days. The Public Works Director may grant up to two 90-day extensions. Permits authorize the testing of up to three autonomous delivery devices per permittee. No more than a total of nine autonomous delivery devices may be permitted at any time.

Testing shall be within zoning district designated as Production, Design and Repair (“PDR”). Testing shall not take place within a Vision Zero San Francisco high-injury corridor. A human operator shall remain within 30 feet of the Autonomous Delivery Device for the entire duration of testing.

The rules about PDR zones in particular segregate robots to only a few neighborhoods, mostly concentrated around SoMa, Bayview, and India Basin.

A residential map of San Francisco with color-coded blocks designating different zoning uses.
The parcels in shades of blue are virtually the only PDR-designated zones in the city where robot testing may occur.
SF Planning

Although the city began offering permits in early 2018, thus far no company has taken the city up on the offer.

Only a few weeks after the city’s cautious robot policy went into effect, SF sidewalks got a vivid illustration of the effects of unregulated new technology when e-scooters appeared overnight and changed the landscape of San Francisco’s most dense neighborhoods.

Postmates introduced Serve in December of 2018, qualifying the device with the very specific superlative of “the first robotic delivery device created from the ground up by an on-demand delivery service.”

The robot can take loads of up to 50 pounds and travel about 30 miles before its batteries need to be recharged. It uses a laser-based LIDAR system similar to the ones in self-driving cars to navigate, and comes equipped with turn signals to warn nearby pedestrians.

Note the big, round eyes in front, a design that makes robots seem more sympathetic and lovable—whereas security robots, like the one that guards a SoMa gas station, sport a narrow visor that people perceive as intimidating.

For the record, Postmates alleges it wants to employ robots to help out its human couriers rather than replace them.