SF puts strict limits on delivery robots

After a six-month debate over delivery robots using San Francisco’s sidewalks, The City on Tuesday adopted tough restrictions on the automated devices.

Supervisor Norman Yee, with the support of pedestrian safety groups, initially proposed an outright ban on robot deliveries. That proposal faced strong opposition from robot companies, such as Marble, which is based in Potrero Hill.

Yee subsequently amended the legislation to allow for limited permits for robots to use public sidewalks only in largely industrial and warehouse areas of The City, known as areas zoned as production, distribution and repair (or PDR), and where there are fewer pedestrians “for these devices to bump into.”

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the legislation Tuesday. “Today is about keeping our sidewalks for people,” Yee said.

The City already bans bicycles and Segways from its sidewalks. Yee and his supporters had threatened to take the original outright ban proposal to the ballot if they weren’t satisfied with the outcome.

Permits would allow only nine delivery robots permitted at any one time and only three per permittee in an area relegated to 130 streets, or a total of 761 blocks.

Supervisor Malia Cohen initially expressed concerns about stifling innovation, which she said could possibly lead to “a robot that picks up needles.” There is a proliferation of discarded syringes in San Francisco public spaces.

But Yee said The City can assemble a task force to hone regulations that could open up more areas, but in the interim restrictions were necessary to ensure the use doesn’t get out of control.

Prior to the vote, Yee painted a dystopian vision of “20,000 robots roaming around the streets and people have to walk not on the sidewalks but have to walk on the streets with the cars” if they went unchecked.

Joshua Sabatini
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Joshua Sabatini

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