The mobility committee hears the case of remotely piloted delivery robots

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Photo by Coco

Friday, August 5, 2022 by Samuel Stark

The colorful little robots that roam the streets of Austin, delivering burritos and fried chicken, probably won’t be going anytime soon. On the contrary, this may just be the beginning of the era of robotic delivery.

At least that was the sentiment at the city council’s mobility committee meeting on Thursday when the Department of Transportation gave a presentation on the future of personal delivery devices, or PDDs, in the city and outlined the rules that they must follow.

PDDs are defined as automated devices that operate in pedestrian areas, such as sidewalks, or on shoulders, such as bike lanes. They are currently piloted by employees with a 360-degree view of the road via the cameras built into the machine. Think remote control car but bigger.

DPs were first seen in Austin in July 2016. In 2019, Senate Bill 969 took effect, enacting statewide regulations for robot delivery drivers. Robots are not allowed to exceed a speed limit of 10 miles per hour on a sidewalk and 20 miles per hour on the shoulder of a highway, according to Texas code. They must be equipped with a braking system, front and rear lights if they operate at night, and must display the operator’s information on the device.

“I just see (delivery robots) as a fairly efficient way of getting people some of the things they need in a timely manner. And from all I can tell, it’s pretty safe,” said said council member Mackenzie Kelly.

Currently, only two companies, Coco and Refraction AI, use PPDs in Austin, but more PDDs on the streets of Austin or even in the air are on the horizon. A delivery robot, developed by Ford, transports packages from trucks to customer doors, and Uber and Amazon Prime are preparing to deploy — or have deployed — drone-like devices.

“These are not currently in Austin, but these are things that have been developed and are working in various parts of the world,” said Jacob Culberson, mobility division manager for the Department of Transportation.

Transportation has partnered with Coco and Refraction AI to ensure they operate according to state rules. The department is currently working with businesses to create best practice guidelines, with rules such as no use of parks or avoiding state capitol grounds.

“We believe transportation is important from the standpoint of getting things more efficiently and sustainably,” said Luke Schneider, CEO of Refraction AI.

Although the reception was mostly positive, Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison raised concerns that automating delivery services could eliminate jobs for people who might be delivering items by bike, car or on foot.

“Is there some sort of counterbalance for labor when we start automating?” Harper-Madison asked.

“We are hiring, and we are hiring fast. We have a lot of places to work those people who would one day be displaced by something like this,” Schneider said.

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