Austin City Council Approves Delivery Robot Pilot Program

A resolution adopted unanimously this morning at a meeting of the Austin City Council will allow the deployment of personal delivery robotic devices, or PDDs, on city sidewalks. The resolution authorizes the creation of a pilot program by the Austin Transportation Department to partner with private tech companies and PDD operators to test the feasibility of battery-powered delivery robots in the city.

“Austin is recognized as an innovative and technologically forward city. Austin has seen disruptive technologies enter our local market and further technology disruptions are anticipated. Experience suggests that the best strategy for addressing the anticipated disruption is to seek an accelerated adoption of the new technology while maintaining opportunities for competition. This will allow Austin to better shape the characteristics of how the new technologies interact with our community to meet pressing urban needs.”

— Austin City Council Resolution No. 20170504-039

It seems the city, fresh off the whiplash of legislation surrounding the regulation of another certain disruptive technology, would prefer to lay the groundwork for future tech innovations through early adoption. It’s probably a forward-thinking move, with statewide laws regulating the use of delivery robots already on the books in Florida, Virginia, Idaho, and Wisconsin.

This year, PDDs from major players in the industry like Starship Technologies and Marble have appeared on the streets in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, with more companies coming on the scene all the time. Starship Technologies has already expressed an interest in the Austin area, with preliminary testing conducted in the Mueller community last year.

A delivery robot in the wild. Photo courtesy of Starship Technologies.

What’s that mean for us? Long story short, the future is now — and it’s going to allow us to be lazier than ever. The devices are mostly used for food delivery and retail items, partnered with companies like Postmates and Yelp Eat24, but could also perform document courier services, or the quick delivery of medicine. The autonomous delivery devices themselves are already a billion-dollar industry, with tech companies like Amazon and Uber snapping up industrial automation companies left and right.

The language of the resolution adopted today allows the city’s transportation department to consider proposals from private companies building PDD tech, in order to build a partnership for a pilot deployment of autonomous delivery devices between technology providers and the city.

According to the resolution, “No fees or exchange of monetary services are anticipated as part of the pilot,” and operators must obey the city’s operational and geographic restrictions. Some of the operational and safety restrictions for these devices established by the resolution include a maximum weight of 300 pounds excluding cargo — similar to the city’s guidelines for electric wheelchairs — along with a maximum speed of 10 miles per hour.

Delivery devices are also only allowed on city sidewalks, crosswalks, and other pedestrian paths. The resolution requires operating companies to maintain at least $1 million in liability insurance, and clearly mark their autonomous devices with information allowing the public to submit inquiries — think of it as a 21st-century “How’s My Driving?” bumper sticker.

And before you ask, someone’s already thought about the risk of theft. Your burrito will probably be safe.

One last interesting bit of the resolution reads, “It is anticipated that the State may take interest in Personal Delivery Devices in a future legislative cycle, and information from the City’s pilot program might be informative in any state-level discussions.” Did you hear that? We’re testing the future! It’s not a flying car, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.