Are Delivery Robots on Their Way to a Neighborhood Near You?
IN FEBRUARY, A lobbyist friend urged Erik Sartorius, the executive director of the Kansas League of Municipalities, to look at a newly introduced bill that would affect cities. The legislation involved “personal delivery devices”—robots that, as if in a sci-fi movie, might deliver a bag of groceries, a toolbox, or a prescription to your doorstep. It would have limited their weight to 150 pounds, not including the cargo inside. And it would have allowed them to operate on any sidewalk or crosswalk in Kansas at speeds up to 6 miles per hour, the pace of a quick human jog.
Lawmakers and lobbyists say the bill was drafted with help from Amazon. In later testimony to a state senate committee, Amazon lobbyist Jennie Massey said the bill would allow devices like Scout, the company’s bright blue, six-wheeled robot, “to bring new technology and innovation to Kansas.” She noted that Amazon had invested $2.2 billion in Kansas since 2010, and that the company employed 3,000 full-time workers in the state.
Sartorius knew the bill wouldn’t fly. “I think some members of the committee hadn’t really considered the impact on their communities,” he says of the bill. He worried about a provision that would have barred cities and towns from creating their own robot regulations. Officials in Kansas City, Kansas, objected that the robots would be using public roads and sidewalks without paying into local coffers. A Teamsters representative said the legislation did not include enough testing requirements, and said the robots could eventually replace human workers.
The Kansas bill failed, but it was just one battle in a wider war. Amazon and FedEx seeded and backed similar bills permitting delivery robots in more than a dozen states this year. At least six have become law.
Both Amazon and FedEx are developing delivery robots. FedEx’s bot, which is called Roxo and looks like a small refrigerator, has completed on-road tests in four cities. Scout, built to deliver Prime packages, also is testing in four cities. The companies present similar visions: A delivery van full of robots would arrive in a neighborhood, and robots would travel the “last mile” to customers’ doorsteps without human aid.
The bots aren’t quite there yet. In a blog posted last month, Amazon said it is testing a small number of devices during weekday daylight hours, for now with a person (“an Amazon Scout Ambassador”) present. FedEx CEO Fred Smith wrote in a letter to shareholders this month that Roxo is preparing for a second round of tests. “We’ll come out of this pandemic with a greater understanding of how FedEx can benefit customers—and society—through these devices,” he wrote.
A spokesperson for Amazon did not respond to questions about the timing of the state bills or Amazon’s role, but said the company was broadly supportive of the legislation. Isabel Rollison, a spokesperson for FedEx, said the company is “seeking the authority to operate Roxo the On Demand Bot across the country and is committed to working with state and local leaders to bring testing and operations of our personal delivery devices to their communities.”
Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies emerging tech, says the bills don’t mean you’ll wake up tomorrow to an Amazon robot knocking on your door. Instead, he says, they reflect “the recognition by well-positioned companies with capable national and in some cases in-state lobbying operations that now is the right time to shape favorable legislation on this topic, before everyone starts talking about it.” Companies often want to create “legal certainty,” he says, to give themselves more flexibility as they develop and start using new tech.
The bills contain similar language but are not identical. 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 the robots at all (Utah).
Backers say the laws will usher in a future where household items show up in a matter of hours, with fewer idling delivery vans blocking traffic and spewing emissions. “This is part of the beginning of a revolution in transportation,” says Dave Marsden, a Virginia state senator who sponsored that state’s bill, which was signed into law in April. “These things are going to operate fairly flawlessly, and once people get used to them, it will ease the way for [other technology]. This is just the first wave.” Utah lawmakers affectionately called their legislation “the R2D2 bill,” after the FedEx robot that came to the statehouse for a demonstration earlier this year.
But others worry what the bills would mean for the future of sidewalks. “I’m worried about it walking up on a person and losing control, or getting stuck in a pothole, or climbing up a person’s porch and falling through,” says Adam Hollier, a Michigan state senator who represents northern Detroit and nearby communities. Hollier voted against Michigan’s bill in committee; it is still being considered.
Lawmakers and advocates elsewhere have raised concerns about the robots’ speed and whether they might inadvertently knock over people or pets. “We need folks to understand that this technology is very new. These are man-made machines, and nothing is perfect,” says John Mataya, the national state legislative director for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
At least two people with disabilities have written about uncomfortable run-ins with robots traveling in limited sidewalk space. Haben Girma, a former litigator who is deaf-blind, was surprised this summer when she encountered a delivery robot operated by the company Starship Technologies on a sidewalk in Mountain View, California, and the robot didn’t maneuver around her and her guide dog, Mylo. A spokesperson for Starship didn’t comment on the incident but said that the company “has been involved with and supports the legislation” introduced in several states.
In a statement, Amazon spokesperson Av Zammit said, “Safety is Amazon’s top priority, and Scout has been designed for safety and accessibility. Scout is able to stop, or safely navigate around, pedestrians, pets, and obstacles.”
Rollison, the FedEx spokesperson, says, “Safety has always been the top priority for FedEx, and Roxo the FedEx On Demand Bot has been designed with pedestrian, customer, and vehicle safety top of mind.” She says the robot’s taller profile should make it easier for people on foot to see.
Lawmakers and lobbyists in several states that considered robot delivery bills said representatives for Amazon and FedEx seemed open to discussions and changes in the bills. Scott Mooneyham, of the North Carolina League of Municipalities, contrasts that approach with the early actions of scooter companies, which became notorious for dropping their electric devices on public sidewalks without giving local officials prior warning. Mooneyham’s group pushed back on language that would have barred localities from creating their own sidewalk robot rules. Now, local officials in North Carolina can prohibit the devices if they determine it’s necessary. “We felt this was a compromise result that took into account the interests of our cities and towns,” says Mooneyham.