ROBOTICS

Bring on the delivery robots, Austin City Council says

Posted August 10th, 2017

Coming soon to an Austin sidewalk near you: delivery robots. 

The Austin City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a pilot program that will allow companies to use delivery robots throughout the city.

It’s an initiative that city officials said will signal that Austin is open to this evolving technology. 

“It’s a new technology to Austin and it could be a real welcome part of our Austin landscape,” said City Council Member Kathie Tovo, who originally sponsored the agenda item. “It has all kinds of potential for Austinites living in all parts of our city.” 

Companies can now fill out a proposal to operate their robots on Austin’s sidewalks, crosswalks and pedestrian roads to deliver food or other merchandise. The city will also be soliciting companies to begin robot deliveries in Austin. Proposals will be reviewed by the city traffic engineer.

Starship Technologies, a company that works with delivery companies like Postmates, has been vying since last year to operate its robots in Austin

Starship Technologies previously said that once the city granted approval, it would apply for the city pilot program and hoped to have its robots up and running in Austin this year.

Robert Spillar, the city’s transportation director, also said three to five other  “industry leaders” could potentially be interested in the program.

The robots will have to meet certain rules to participate, including not weighing more than 300 pounds and not exceeding a maximum speed of 10 miles per hour. Starship’s robots are box-shaped devices that trudge along at about 4 miles per hour.

While companies will not have to pay the city a fee to operate their robots, they do have to have liability insurance of at least $1 million. But if the program outlasts its initial two years, it’s possible companies could start to have to pay the city to operate their robots in Austin, Tovo said.

Austin City Council Member Greg Casar expressed concern that robots could take away delivery jobs from people. Council members also said they had concerns that the robots could make walkways more crowded and become a distraction. 

“By piloting it, it gives us an opportunity to understand the technology better and how it best works within the environment,” Spillar responded, adding that allowing Starship Technologies to operate in Austin could help “identify how we will use this technology to meet our strategic goals.”

The City Council also discussed having the delivery robots operate beyond the city’s center so people outside of  downtown can experience the devices. Spillar said delivery robots could be beneficial, for example, to people who cannot leave their homes due to mobility issues, or for pharmacies to deliver medicine to patients. He said most companies that use these devices advertise a 2 mile radius distance of operation. 

The city’s pilot program was influenced by places such as Washington D.C., Spillar said, where Starship rolled out delivery robots this past spring. There are also reportedly delivery robots in Florida, Virginia, Idaho and Wisconsin. 

It was technically already legal to operate delivery robots in Austin, but the program is meant to regulate the technology and also promote to companies throughout the U.S. that Austin is a city that could welcome them, Tovo said. 

Starship said it plans to submit a proposal to Austin and to be up-and-running by the end of the year, though it will likely do so facing competitors. Companies such as Marble, Dispatch and Piaggio Fast Forward are all beginning delivery robot programs. 

The two-year time limit on Austin’s pilot program is not a coincidence. The program will end in time for state legislators to possibly review a statewide regulation for delivery robots at the next regular legislative session, Spillar said. 

“I don't know what the future holds - that's the whole point of doing a pilot is to better understand how it works,” he said. “It’s two years, then we need to come back to council for either ongoing authority, or a different plan.”

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