Delivery Robots in Arizona?


On a rainy day like today, you might wish you didn’t have to go outside.  You might wish you could order food right to your door, but without the added cost of a human delivery driver.

Your wish might soon be possible.

Arizona Representative Townsend (R-Mesa) recently introduced HB 2422 to allow robots on public sidewalks for the purpose of delivering goods to your door.  The bill permits robots under 100 pounds to travel on sidewalks and crosswalks at a speed of 10 miles per hour or slower in order to solve the “last mile” problem (the high cost of getting goods from the perimeter of a city through narrower and more crowded streets to their individualized final destination).  Already 10 companies manufacture delivery robots; Starship, Marble, and Vespa are three of the leading names.

The bill received unanimous approval from the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, but it must be approved by full the House and the Arizona Senate before being it’s sent to Governor Ducey.  Five other states have so far passed similar legislation (Florida HB 1027; Wisconsin Act 13 of 2017; Ohio House Bill 49 (the language is included in the bigger budget bill); Idaho HB 204; Virginia SB 1207).

Ryan Randazzo nicely covered the bill at The Arizona Republic (also featured at The Phoenix New Times, Phoenix Business Journal, etc.), so I’ll jump to some more abstract thoughts:

1.  This is probably just signaling for the time being.

Despite the fact that five states have already passed such laws, delivery robots have only been tested in the U.S. in California and in Washington, DC.  Despite the title (it was a trap!), it might be a while before delivery robots are on the streets of Arizona in any significant fashion.

Still, Townsend’s build adds to the increasingly convincing narrative that Arizona is open to new ideas, new technologies, and the companies that advance these ideas.  The New York Times recently said that Arizona is “Where Self-Driving Cars Go to Learn”; we’ve recognized digital smart contracts as enforceable contracts, and we might soon let startup financial technology companies operate experimentally with reduced state regulations (HB 2434).

Townsend’s effort looks especially tech-friendly when compared with elected officials of some other states.  San Francisco supervisor (a city legislative position) Norman Yee recently introduced legislation to ban all delivery robots from the streets of San Francisco — no exceptions.  Yee stated that “Not every innovation is all that great for society,” and Yee gave forum to the following statements from anti-robot advocates (as reported by The Guardian):
• “Sidewalks, I believe, are not playgrounds for the new remote controlled toys of the clever to make money and eliminate jobs,” said Lorraine Petty, an activist with the community group Senior and Disability Action. “They’re for us to walk.”
• George Wooding, a local activist who uses a wheelchair, added: “You do not need a robot to deliver a ham sandwich. If you want one that badly, just go down and get it yourself.”
This plays right into Governor Ducey’s regular quip that in terms of getting tech companies to move to Arizona, California Governor Jerry Brown is his best business partner.

2.  But why does this need a law?

These robots actually need Townsend’s bill because current Arizona law prevents such motorized vehicles from using the sidewalk.

3.  Still, this shows that these companies — Starship, Marble, and Vespa — aren’t Uber.

The Arizona Republic quoted Starship spokesman David Catania as stating, “We don’t want to be operating and asking for forgiveness.”

Perhaps it’s because of the nature of the product, or perhaps it’s because it doesn’t want the same image as Uber, but Starship is clearly taking a different path from Uber’s “ask for forgiveness, not permission” approach to laws and regulations obstructing its business models.  We’ll see if this by-the-book model works as effectively.

4.  Comparing this bill to the other states: Will Arizona be balkanized? And will that jeopardize our chances as the robotic HQ?

Townsend’s bill expressly allows local governments/authorities to adopt “reasonable restrictions for the safe operation of personal delivery devices” on top of the regulations imposed by state law.  This gives cities license to experiment with regulations, but it also means that robot delivery services might have one set of rules for Phoenix and another set for Tempe.  Something like this is obviously more problematic when dealing with autonomous vehicles that will of course cross from city to city, but the lack of a uniform standard could prove problematic even for these delivery robots, and that could make Arizona slightly less attractive as a testing home.  Idaho and Florida both allow cities to tinker with additional regulations; Wisconsin and Virginia allow cities to outright ban the robots, but if they allow them, then they have to play by the state rules.

This delegation of authority to local entities might not be best for the technology — I really don’t know, but it’s worth thinking about — and it seems peculiarly out of place given that the state of Arizona just slapped Tucson’s hand when it tried to act contrary to state law and destroy confiscated guns, and the state thwarted Bisbee’s plastic bag ban that contravened state law (yes, I know the legal issues are different, but still…).

5.  Ex-ante versus Ex-post legal regime

Forgive me this law school flashback, but laws that purport to know the exact right regulatory specifics always made some of my former professors sigh.   Do we really know that 100 pounds is the right weight in terms cost-benefit weight (utility of additional weight vs. risk of harm, multiplied by amount of harm)?  And is 10 mph really the right speed limit?  Representative Townsend undoubtedly spoke with multiple experts before writing the bill, but we don’t know what the future technology will look like, and we don’t know if there will be some very good reason in the future to have a, say, 150-pound robot.  We consistently seem to have no faith in our tort liability system to set proper damages amounts such that the actors that best know the device — the technology companies — can design an optimal robot.

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Despite that cold blanket final paragraph, Townsend’s bill is very exciting, and I hope it further cements Arizona’s status as a place where tech innovation happens.

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