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Robots: Smart policy, not premature bans

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A Marble delivery robot rolls down Valencia Street in San Francisco’s Mission District. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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It might sound like something out of the future, but the next time you order ramen or groceries, it could be delivered by a small, wheeled rover navigating city streets at 4 mph — unless the Board of Supervisors outlaws this delivery technology in San Francisco.

While cities across the U.S. — from Washington, D.C., to Redwood City — are piloting programs with robotic rovers, many others are working on how to most effectively and safely integrate them into their urban landscape.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case in The City. On Wednesday, the Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee chose to send Supervisor Norman Yee’s legislation calling for an outright ban on the robotic rovers to the full Board of Supervisors, potentially putting an end to the development of this state-of-the-art technology before it can get its wheels on the ground.

No one is suggesting we should have unmonitored robot brigades storming our neighborhoods. More so, these robotic rovers are an innovative new industry, and San Francisco should be one of the cities at the forefront, working on how the devices can be appropriately tested and smartly regulated. Some of the companies were founded right here in The City. One company, Marble, designs, builds and manufactures its robots in Potrero Hill.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce has been working closely with the robotics industry and small business leaders to determine how this new technology can support our businesses and the quality of life for our residents and workforce, without compromising the safety of our city sidewalks.

The robot industry has proactively come to the table, submitted a regulatory framework to The City and wants to contribute to the business community. They will pay the appropriate business permit fees and taxes before operating and will limit the speeds and amount of time they can travel on sidewalks. They also recognize the opportunity their industry has to collect important data on our streets, and will share how the rovers are optimizing small business sales, as well as topography and street mapping.

Concerns expressed over pedestrian safety should be explored and tested in a real-world environment. In current pilot projects, the robotic rovers are always controlled and monitored by a human and use “socially aware navigation” to observe a general code of pedestrian conduct. One robot delivery manufacturer, Starship, has piloted programs in the U.S and in Europe, where the company’s test rovers have traveled thousands of miles and interfaced with millions of people without any accidents.

Robotic rovers accomplish a lot more than eliciting some “oohs” and “aahs” by passersby. They have the potential to transform access to goods for senior citizens, the disabled and residents in underserved communities or food deserts in The City.

The rovers present an economic opportunity for small businesses that will be forfeited if not explored. The San Francisco Small Business Commission does not support the proposed ban but rather urged The City to use a pilot permit program for this industry to access the sidewalks. Postmates, an on-demand courier service that utilizes robotic rovers and is headquartered in San Francisco, reports that 96 percent of its deliveries travel six city blocks beyond a merchant’s storefront, which is approximately a 10-minute walk radius. Expanding a brick-and-mortar business’ customer base beyond the immediate surroundings enables residents and workers across The City to access their products. With that increased access, it’s not surprising that Postmates reports small businesses experience a three-times increase in sales.

Let’s start the conversation on how to move forward and create some thoughtful regulatory framework. An all-out ban does nothing but suppress the culture of innovation and inclusion that’s part of the fabric of our city, and stifles an opportunity for the small businesses we are fighting so hard to preserve.

Tallia Hart is president and CEO of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce.

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