Bring on the delivery ro­bots, Austin City Coun­cil says

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Sebastian Her­rera sher­rera@states­man.com

Com­ing soon to an Austin side­walk near you: delivery ro­bots.

The Austin City Coun­cil on Thurs­day unan­i­mously ap­proved a pi­lot pro­gram that will al­low com­pa­nies to use delivery ro­bots through­out the city.

It’s an ini­tia­tive that city of­fi­cials said will sig­nal that Austin is open to this evolv­ing tech­nol­ogy.

“It’s a new tech­nol­ogy to Austin and it could be a real welcome part of our Austin land­scape,” said City Coun­cil Mem­ber Kathie Tovo, who orig­i­nally spon­sored the agenda item. “It has all kinds of po­ten­tial for Aus­tinites liv­ing in all parts of our city.”

Com­pa­nies can now fill out a pro­posal to op­er­ate their ro­bots on Austin’s side­walks, cross­walks and pedes­trian roads to de­liver food or other mer­chan­dise. The city will also be so­lic­it­ing com­pa­nies to be­gin ro­bot de­liv­er­ies in Austin. Pro­pos­als will be re­viewed by the city traf­fic en­gi­neer.

Star­ship Tech­nolo­gies, a com­pany that works with delivery com­pa­nies such as Post­mates, has been vy­ing since last year to op­er­ate its ro­bots in Austin.

Star­ship Tech­nolo­gies pre­vi­ously said that once the city granted ap­proval, it would ap­ply for the city pi­lot pro­gram and hoped to have its ro­bots up and run­ning in Austin this year.

Robert Spil­lar, the city’s trans­porta­tion di­rec­tor, also said three to five other “in­dus­try lead­ers” could po­ten­tially be in­ter­ested in the pro­gram.

The ro­bots will have to meet cer­tain rules to par­tic­i­pate, in­clud­ing not weigh­ing more than 300 pounds and not ex­ceed­ing a max­i­mum speed of 10 miles per hour. Star­ship’s ro­bots are box-shaped de­vices that trudge along at about 4 mph.

While com­pa­nies will not have to pay the city a fee to op­er­ate their ro­bots, they do have to have li­a­bil­ity in­surance of at least $1 mil-

lion. But if the pro­gram out­lasts its ini­tial two years, it’s pos­si­ble com­pa­nies could start to have to pay the city to op­er­ate their ro­bots in Austin, Tovo said.

Austin City Coun­cil Mem­ber Greg Casar ex­pressed con­cern that ro­bots could take away delivery jobs from peo­ple. Coun­cil mem­bers also said they had con­cerns that the ro­bots could make walk­ways more crowded and be­come a dis­trac­tion.

“By pi­lot­ing it, it gives us an op­por­tu­nity to un­der­stand the tech­nol­ogy bet­ter and how it best works within the en­vi­ron­ment,” Spil­lar re­sponded, adding that al­low­ing Star­ship Tech­nolo­gies to op­er­ate in Austin could help “iden­tify how we will use this tech­nol­ogy to meet our strate­gic goals.”

The City Coun­cil also dis­cussed hav­ing the delivery ro­bots op­er­ate be­yond the city’s cen­ter so peo­ple out­side of down­town can ex­pe­ri­ence the de­vices. Spil­lar said delivery ro­bots could be ben­e­fi­cial, for ex­am­ple, to peo­ple who can­not leave their homes due to mo­bil­ity is­sues, or for phar­ma­cies to de­liver medicine to pa­tients. He said most com­pa­nies that use these de­vices ad­ver­tise a 2 mile-ra­dius of op­er­a­tion.

The city’s pi­lot pro­gram was in­flu­enced by places such as Wash­ing­ton, D.C., Spil­lar said, where Star­ship rolled out delivery ro­bots this past spring. There also are re­port­edly delivery ro­bots in Florida, Vir­ginia, Idaho and Wis­con­sin.

It was tech­ni­cally al­ready le­gal to op­er­ate delivery ro­bots in Austin, but the pro­gram is meant to reg­u­late the tech­nol­ogy and also pro­mote to com­pa­nies through­out the U.S. that Austin is a city that could welcome them.

Star­ship said it plans to sub­mit a pro­posal to Austin and to be up and run­ning by the end of the year, though it will likely do so fac­ing com­peti­tors. Com­pa­nies such as Mar­ble, Dis­patch and Pi­ag­gio Fast For­ward are all be­gin­ning delivery ro­bot pro­grams.

The two-year time limit on Austin’s pi­lot pro­gram is not a co­in­ci­dence. The pro­gram will end in time for state leg­is­la­tors to pos­si­bly re­view a statewide reg­u­la­tion for delivery ro­bots at the next reg­u­lar leg­isla­tive ses­sion, Spil­lar said.

“I don’t know what the fu­ture holds — that’s the whole point of do­ing a pi­lot is to bet­ter un­der­stand how it works,” he said. “It’s two years, then we need to come back to coun­cil for ei­ther on­go­ing au­thor­ity, or a dif­fer­ent plan.”

RI­CARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Star­ship Tech­nolo­gies con­ducts a demon­stra­tion of its delivery ro­bots late last month in the Mueller area. The com­pany hopes to start de­liv­er­ies in Austin by year’s end.

RI­CARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Star­ship Tech­nolo­gies rolled out its delivery ro­bots in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., this spring. Last month, it demon­strated them in Mueller.

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