March 2 2017
Drones have been delivering packages for sometime – stirring up controversy over safety, security, and privacy. Now, there’s new competition in the tech delivery market with the introduction of delivery robots.
The Virginia legislature has made history by passing legislation that permits robots to operate on sidewalks and crosswalks. As the only U.S. state to open the door to this technology, Virginia is leading the way, but similar legislation has been introduced in Florida and Idaho.
Under the new law that takes effect July 1st, delivery robots can travel sidewalks and crosswalks moving no faster than ten miles per hour or weighing more than 50 pounds. These small wagons can roam freely and autonomously – meaning they don’t need a human being with them. Someone must at least be able to remotely monitor the robot and take it over if something goes wrong such as hitting a person or running over a cat.
The bill sponsors worked with Starship Technologies, an Estonia-based company leading in the development of delivery robots, to craft the legislation:
There wasn’t push back [from legislators],” Rep. [Ron] Villanueva said in an interview with Recode. “It was more like intrigue and curiosity about the technology, what the application would be, how it would benefit the citizens.”
The state is still making room for municipalities to decide whether they will add greater restrictions on the technology or permit it at all.
The last mile is the most cumbersome and expensive part of delivery, especially in suburbs when drivers go from house to house, getting out of the van, knocking on doors and so forth. UPS even went so far as to eliminate left turns from delivery routes to shave off precious seconds and dollars.
"If this new technology is really feasible, FedEx and UPS will both be at the forefront of using it and developing it," said Donald Broughton, senior transportation analyst at Avondale Partners. But he said these robots would face the same regulatory and safety hurdles as delivery drones.
At least we have an example of lawmakers working with a business to take a common-sense approach to creating a framework for how the technology is developing. The caveat though is that if cities and towns develop their own rules, it could lead to a patchwork of conflicting rules across the state that complicate the delivery process and make it hard to experience the efficiency and cost-savings that scale delivers.
In addition, Virginia isn’t just putting out the welcome for one company, but for any robotic delivery company to bring autonomous delivery robots to their sidewalks.
Beyond the technology itself, an interesting consideration is how robotic deliveries will affect the labor force. An argument could be made that it would make delivery men more efficient, by focusing their deliveries on addresses up staircases or in hard-to-reach places. Eventually though, delivery robotic technology will move from ground-based (such as the machines Starship Technologies is rolling out) to those that can walk (such as this two-legged robot). If that’s the case, those robots may eventually replace human deliverymen.
The two-edged sword of technology is that it delivers greater efficiency and better products at better prices for consumers, but it may eliminate some jobs along the way. However, other jobs will be created. Programmers, designers, and creators who create, fix, and supervise these machines will be needed. However, those may be positions that require greater technical skills or education.
For women who work in the delivery field or those who have husbands, sons, and friends who work in delivery, these are the coming changes that should be on their radars. As a society, we need to think about how we prepare young people for a rapidly evolving economy and labor force that could look very different within the next generation.