Autonomous Delivery Robots Are Slowly Infiltrating Communities – As Pedestrians

Autonomous delivery robots would still have had their moment, but there’s no denying the ongoing health crisis has accelerated their development and subsequent introduction into U.S. communities.
Starship autonomous delivery robots 1 photo
Photo: Starship via
Pennsylvania has become the latest U.S. state to legalize autonomous delivery robots, officially called Personal Delivery Devices (PPDs) – as well as the latest to do so by classifying them as pedestrians. It is, however, one of the few states to impose such lax conditions for the use of these robots, including a 550-pound (250-kg) maximum weight without cargo and a maximum top speed of 25 mph (50 kph) on empty roadways and shoulders. As the Pittsburgh City Paper notes, on sidewalks, these autonomous robots can travel as fast as 12 mph (19.3 kph).

Progress is desirable and unstoppable. The idea for these autonomous delivery robots was more firmly introduced earlier this year by Amazon and FedEx as they strove to accelerate deliveries without adding to congestion and pollution, or increasing their human workforce. If they could deploy large trucks filled with robots, which would then travel the last mile to the recipient’s home, it would be just great.

In a year when worldwide recommendations call for little to no social contact, these robots could also work for a variety of other purposes. In other countries, for instance, large supermarket chains have started using them instead of delivery services. They can deliver goods of all kinds, from groceries to prescriptions. There are countless benefits to them, from faster delivery times to the promise of a smoother, more sanitized delivery experience.

As per the same media outlet, which cites pedestrian, cyclist and accessibility advocates, as well as labor unions, the biggest issue right now is the fact that these things are allowed to roam on the sidewalks. A 550-pound / 250-kg (without cargo, mind you) robot traveling at 12 mph / 19.3 kph could cause a lot of damage, should anything go wrong with it for whatever reason, whether it’s a malfunction, an obstacle in its path or a pedestrian’s inattention.

Eric Boerer of bike-pedestrian advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh puts it best: a collision with one of these things is like being hit by a speeding fridge. In this kind of worst-case-scenario, the pedestrian wouldn’t be the one to come out of it unharmed, to be sure. Cyclists wouldn’t be better off, either: on bicycle paths, delivery robots are allowed to travel at 25 mph / 50 kph, which is the same speed allowed for e-bikes – with the notable exception that there’s no human operator to take over in case something goes wrong.

Autonomous delivery robots are a welcome, perhaps much-needed addition to our daily lives. But the argument being made here is that they shouldn’t add to another problem – which is what is happening with them being classified as pedestrians – but aim for a seamless inclusion, ideally with input from the community.
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About the author: Elena Gorgan
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Elena has been writing for a living since 2006 and, as a journalist, she has put her double major in English and Spanish to good use. She covers automotive and mobility topics like cars and bicycles, and she always knows the shows worth watching on Netflix and friends.
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