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Should Sidewalk Robots Have Legal Rights as Pedestrians?

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 08:  A Starship Technologies delivery robot crosses a street as local residents pass by April 8, 2020 in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Washington, DC. The local Broad Branch Market is teaming up with Starship to provide delivery service of groceries and prepared food by autonomous robots to neighboring areas amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

At what point does a robot become a person?

There have been plenty of articles, scholarly and otherwise, that have asked that question. Does a robot become a real person when they achieve self-awareness? Think independently? Develop actual emotions?

But don't worry; we're not going to delve into the complexities of theoretical speculation here.

What we are going to talk about here is something more tangible: Delivery robots, aka “personal delivery devices," or PDDs.

You may have already seen them skittering along a sidewalk in a city where the state has allowed their use. They're not much to see – basically, just a box on wheels – so you would be forgiven for doubting that these meager objects pose any kind of existential threat to society.

But if you are the type whose doubts run in the opposite direction, then you might be interested in how the laws in these states are regulating delivery robots. You might be interested in how they are starting to give robots something like legal personhood. You might be wondering if these are the first manifestations of the Robot Overlord to come, but… well, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

They're Spreading Across the Land

There are 12 of these states now, according to Axios, and typically the enabling laws speak about providing delivery robots the same kinds of mobility that human pedestrians have. Virginia's law, for instance, says that a PDD operating on a sidewalk or crosswalk “shall have all the rights and responsibilities applicable to a pedestrian under the same circumstances."

The Virginia law, passed in 2017, was the first of its kind in the nation. The most recent, passed by Pennsylvania in late 2020, contains even stronger language: “A personal delivery device shall be regulated as a pedestrian and shall not be deemed a vehicle."

Maybe it's wise at this point to take a step back to describe these PDDs. They look nothing like a human. Sure, they “see" so that they avoid running into things. But, again, they are essentially boxes on wheels.

So are they a pedestrian?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a pedestrian as “a person going on foot." A pedestrian, in other words, is a human – with feet and, presumably, legs.

But a box on wheels?

Clearing a Sidewalk Path for Robots

So it would appear that lawmakers in Pennsylvania, at least, have stretched that definition to places it has never existed.

The question is: Why?

The shortest answer is that that's the easiest way to regulate a moving box that's sharing space with real humans.

Amazon (which is also talking about drone deliveries) put its first sidewalk delivery robot, Scout, into use in early 2019 in Snohomish County, Washington, and has expanded to several more cities. A year later, FedEx launched its SameDay Bot, working in collaboration with several retailers, including Pizza Hut, Target, and Walmart.

Then, with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, demand for delivery robots exploded. For consumers, the robots provide convenience, and for delivery companies (and retailers), they offered a way of easing the “final mile" problem. Especially in densely populated areas, delivery trucks face problems with thick traffic and parking restrictions. By using a fleet of sidewalk delivery robots that fan out from a collection hub, the task of getting orders to customers becomes much easier.

Friction Between Humans and Robots

While that might be great for retailers and purchasers, pedestrians – of the human variety, that is – might not be so appreciative. Starship Technologies, a leading manufacturer of sidewalk robots, has admitted that people have kicked their product.

Another manufacturer, Kiwibot, has responded to potential animosity by trying to make their delivery robots look cute, with an animated digital face. “(B)y making cute robots that are not too big, we are triggering your small animal instinct," says the company's director of business, David Rodriguez. “And this makes you accept the robot before you know what it actually is."

Indeed, they don't look very offensive. Starship Technology's popular robots, which resembles a picnic cooler on six wheels, weighs only 44 pounds and has a top speed of 3.7 miles per hour.

But, be prepared. Amazon and FedEx are successfully lobbying state legislatures to allow for bigger and faster delivery robots and even bar municipalities from creating their own robot regulations. Wired reports that those two companies lobbied for bills in more than a dozen states last year, with six becoming law.

“The bills contain similar language but are not identical," Wired reports. “They permit the robots to travel on some sidewalks at speeds up to 10 mph (in North Carolina). Some include weight limits (200 pounds in Idaho and Missouri); others don't address the weight of robots at all (Utah)."

The Wired article, incidentally, was written just before Pennsylvania passed its PDD law, which allows for robots of up to 550 pounds.

These higher weight limits might have a somewhat different category of PDD in mind: ones that are designed for bike lanes. Refraction AI's REV-1, for instance, is 4 ½ feet long, 3 feet tall, 2 ½ feet wide, can carry 280 pounds of goods, and can move 15 miles per hour. Conflicts with bicyclists seem inevitable.

The 'New Normal'

These efforts to achieve enabling laws stand in contrast to those of the electric scooter rentals of a couple of years ago, where companies unleashed them and then stood back to let the chips fall where they may.

Although the delivery companies seem a bit more responsible in that way, it looks as though pedestrian advocates have another developing fight on their hands. And as we slowly emerge from pandemic restrictions, it will only intensify.

“After the outbreak is controlled, we won't go 'back to normal' but will settle into a new normal," futurist Bernard Marr wrote in Forbes. “That new normal will likely have autonomous delivery robots in our workplaces, public spaces, and on our streets."

Certainly, some people will be angry enough to kick them, driven by the same impulse that made them throw scooters into rivers. The scarier part about robots, though, is looking ahead to the day when that won't be considered property damage. The scary part is when that would be considered assault.

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