RONALD D. BLANCHE Los Angeles Times (TNS)
UCLA environmental law professor Sean Hecht was walking across campus one recent night when he photographed a uniquely modern urban transportation scene: a rumble of food delivery robots that couldn’t find a way around a pile of discarded electric scooters.
Passers-by tried to help by moving the scooters but became irritated at the lack of response, probably not realizing that the Starship Technologies bots – deferential to their AMD Ryzen cores – weren’t going to budge until the humans stopped. wouldn’t have stopped going back and forth in front of them.
“A student said, ‘We’re trying to help you here,’ which I found unbelievable,” Hecht said. But also, “people were asking why they didn’t just smash the robots and steal the food.”
“Difficult situation on campus,” Hecht tweeted wryly. “Traffic jam of automated food delivery robots, all apparently stuck behind a carelessly discarded scooter. I just watched a few students make their way out of pity for the robots. It’s our future, I guess.
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Twitter jumped on Hecht’s post with enthusiasm: pro and anti-bot, pro and anti-scooters, anti-sloth students who couldn’t just feed themselves. Some said they would have helped the bots. Others said, no way, no help. Some have joked about flipping the bots on their backs.
It’s not easy being a delivery robot in America.
They were kicked into a rage by angry pedestrians, urinated on by dogs, banged by heavy glass doors, stuffed and blocked by maliciously placed barricades. They have been left stuck in ditches and banned, from time to time, by cities like San Francisco and New York, concerned about sidewalk congestion and job loss, among other things.
They have become popular subjects of online failure videos showing them crashing down stairs, crashing into a fire hydrant and running up a ramp too fast. And crash.
That’s why, as delivery robots proliferate and new robot startups enter the already crowded field, companies have scrambled to get city and university approvals to operate their delivery robots. The companies have joined planning groups and offered to flag issues like unsafe sidewalks, in part to avoid the municipal pushback experienced by Bird and other e-scooter startups.
As Kiwibot co-founder David Rodriguez said, “We started working on new ways to use our sensors and cameras for touchable digital mapping of public rights of way.” Carl Hansen, government relations manager at Los Angeles-based Coco, put it a bit more accessible: “We inform [cities] on obstacles in the streets, sidewalks that are in poor condition and that could cause injury.
It’s all part of a charm offensive portraying bots as safe, polite, cute, and deferential. Models from some companies have LED screens that can display messages and emoji (like shocking pink heart eyes); some are able to talk to pedestrians to offer free samples or ask for help by pressing the push button on a traffic light, for example.
“It’s important that we help prepare cities for our robots,” Rodriguez said. “What we are doing now is working together in terms of regulations so that this happens in a coordinated way, and not like the e-scooter companies have done. It is better to ask permission than to ask for forgiveness.
Kiwibot was one of the mobility innovators working with the Urban Movement Labs of Los Angeles, a public-private partnership where businesses, communities and local government work together, as the group’s lofty language puts it, “to make Los Angeles the transportation innovation capital of the world.”
“We’re also working with Carnegie Mellon University to provide guidance on what type of bots would be most appropriate for urban environments,” Rodriguez said. “We need small robots that aren’t going to compete with wheelchair users or cause priority issues. And the maximum speed of a robot, in our opinion, should not be greater than the speed of a walking human.
Companies devote a significant amount of FAQs to talking about all sorts of potential security and privacy issues.
Starship Technologies’ answer to “Are Starship robots safe for pedestrians?” ” : ” Absolutely ! Starship notes that its robots have traveled over 4 million miles in 20 countries and over 100 cities, meeting millions of people.
Coco assures that “video data is securely stored on devices and deleted daily. It would only be reviewed in the event of an accident or other emergency.
As co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA Law School, Hecht has more than a passing interest in these things. Determining the effects of robots and scooters, both positive and negative, is not a simple task.
“If it turns out that scooters are mostly replacing walking, then there’s no environmental benefit and people are exercising less,” Hecht said. “For delivery robots, it’s a matter of convenience for people, but I think there are a lot of cases where it’s probably a bit silly for someone to have something delivered in a robot s ‘he could walk a quarter of a mile and command the same.’