As the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a boom in online food and shopping deliveries and the ‘contact-free economy’, it is driving new interest and investment in delivery robots.
Companies such as Amazon, FedEx, Starship and Uber are developing, piloting and deploying small, electric delivery robots with the goal of reducing the costs of last-mile deliveries. They have been rolled out in the UK, Japan, the US and elsewhere.
While these vehicles can offer convenience to consumers and benefits to cities who need to reduce the congestion and emissions from delivery vehicles, they also threaten disruption if adequate governance is not in place, as was seen with ride-hailing and scooters.
An international group of 24 cities, planners, technology companies and advocacy groups are collaborating to get ahead of potential issues through an initiative headed by Harmonize Mobility. The work will culminate in an international standard to ensure delivery robots are safe, commercially and operationally viable, and legally manageable.
A new whitepaper from Harmonize, supported by the Ontario-based Centre for Integrated Transportation and Mobility, argues that the need for standards is pressing because delivery robots are likely to roll out at scale before robotaxis since they are perceived as less risky. Further, as well as on roads, the devices will also trundle along sidewalks, pushing further into human spaces.
Bern Grush, Chief Innovation Officer, Harmonize Mobility, who leads the standards work, said: “These machines are much closer to realisation at scale than are robotaxis, leading to cities being caught by surprise once again, even as they may believe they are preparing themselves for AVs.”
The pandemic has highlighted the growing complexity of kerb space and sidewalks, with parking payment systems, bikeshares and bike lanes, scooters, ride-hailing, pick-ups and deliveries, and outdoor dining all vying for limited space.
Grush told Cities Today: “You can’t have automated systems, without humans in the vehicle unless you have a digitalised electronic system for management. You have to reserve a spot, you have to get permission to use the sidewalk, government has to be able to control [the number of robots per block] and speed, etc.”
The International Technical Standard ISO/4448 aims to be such a ‘ground control’ system including data, procedures and protocol for the regulation, governance and operation of vehicles.
“The data and communications standards being defined in this technical standard are intended to enable carefully defined (mapped) and growing areas of cities to manage any number of vehicles and vehicle varieties operated by any number of operators (public, commercial, and private) for these various activities,” the whitepaper states.
It will also take into account co-ordination with service vehicles for rubbish removal, sweeping, washing, snow removal, repair, food trucks and construction.
Alongside 12 cities in Europe, the UK and North America, organisations participating include POLIS, IBI Group, Stantec and the CNIB Foundation.
Andrew Miller, an independent advisor to investors on new mobility and urban tech, and formerly the mobility lead for the now-abandoned Sidewalk Labs initiative in Toronto, is also providing input to the standards work.
He commented: “There’s a saying in software development that ‘many eyes make bugs shallow,’ meaning easily fixed.”
He said the varied group brings “almost endless edge cases that need to be taken into account,” ensuring that the standard is as universal as possible.
On why his organisation is getting involved, Adam Wenneman, a Transportation Planner at Canada-based IBI Group, said: “Traditionally we are consultants, but we noticed a lot of our clients having similar problems: nobody really knows what their kerbside regulations are so we started developing a software product, CurbIQ, to help digitise this information, and then manage it, communicate it, do all sorts with it,”
Accessibility is a key focus for the standard. While robot delivery devices have potential to help those with disabilities by delivering goods and groceries to their door, they could also become obstacles to getting around safely.
Lui Greco, Regulatory Affairs Manager at the CNIB Foundation, a Canadian non-profit advocacy organisation for the blind, said: “Where the vehicles operate, how they operate as far as congestion and speed detectability are some of the key concerns for us.
“We feel that sidewalks are already busy enough with obstacles like trees, planters and restaurant patios, and somehow people who are blind have to try and navigate that environment in a way that doesn’t compromise their safety, independence or dignity.”
He said that accessibility for people with disabilities is often an “afterthought” when new systems are deployed and retrofitting solutions can be difficult.
“We haven’t seen a lot of intentional engagement with accessibility groups in the past, so it’s somewhat unique here and we are very encouraged,” he said.
The standards will be based on proposed operating principles such as that robots must give way to humans and “respect the shy distance normally observed by humans walking or standing”. They should be visible and/or audible to all humans on the sidewalk and must ‘talk’ to other machines. Meanwhile, they must not harm or alarm people or animals, or diminish privacy or security. Rules of engagement must consider how to prevent a robot from being immobilised for long periods in crowded situations.
Miller said he believes the acceleration in internet deliveries and “virtual life” we have seen during the pandemic won’t be reversed any time soon and that without a “common language”, technologies like delivery robots and digital kerb initiatives will be held back. He likened the standards to the rules of the road for cars.
Grush confirmed that none of the robot delivery vehicle companies are yet taking part in the work.
Henry Harris-Burland, VP Marketing at Starship Technologies, told Cities Today that many of the operating protocols outlined in the whitepaper are already being used in regulatory frameworks that Starship has implemented with local and national governments.
“As evidenced through these frameworks, we believe that a standardised definition of Personal Delivery Devices, along with a few select universal requirements, should be established at a national level, with the operating consent devolved to local governments to tailor the operation to the local environment,” he said.
“In the UK, as part of an ongoing legislative review on future of transport, we are working with the Department for Transport and others to establish a new regulatory framework for Personal Delivery Devices,” he added.
Standards can be notoriously slow, unlike technology advancement, as well as fragmented – but the good news is that at least the race is on.
ISO/4448 will be published in four parts, approximately one per year starting in 2021.