San Francisco’s proposed robot delivery ban was rejected by The City’s small business leaders, but ultimately the Board of Supervisors will decide whether to impose the prohibition.
The proposed ban on robot deliveries by Supervisor Norman Yee illustrates how the future of automation has become a top concern among city officials. It’s also a concern sweeping the nation, as evident in comments made earlier this year by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates who warned of sweeping job losses and advocated for a robot tax.
The technology advancement is, expectedly, leading to political tensions at City Hall, which has previously wrestled with how to regulate Airbnb, Uber and even bikeshare apps.
One need only look to the Small Business Commission for evidence of tension around Yee’s robot delivery ban, which would prohibit the autonomous rovers on sidewalks and public right-of-ways.
A vote by the commission was postponed in June as Yee agreed to hold further negotiations. But when the proposal returned to the commission earlier this month and Yee made no amendments, the commission voted 5-1 against the ban after a more than hour-long debate.
The Chamber of Commerce opposes the legislation as well, arguing that it would stymie the development of cutting-edge technology that The City’s economy relies upon and may force these robot companies out of The City and the Bay Area. A similar argument was made in support of the Twitter tax break.
There were no existing regulations around robot deliveries in San Francisco, but earlier this year Public Works launched a pilot permit program, set to expire at the end of the year.
While the commission did oppose the ban, it supported a resolution urging the Board of Supervisors to establish a working group to study the issue in more detail.
Yee’s legislative aide Erica Maybaum told the commission that Yee remains committed to the ban because “we had met with the various companies who did not adequately address our safety concerns.”
There are also concerns about not repeating past mistakes when not regulating tech services at the first signs of their existence but having to play catch up, making it more challenging.
“I see the value of innovation for public and private good, however, let’s be honest about how some emerging technologies have been operating as if no rules apply to them,” Yee said in a statement Tuesday to the San Francisco Examiner. “We do not allow bicycles or Segways on our sidewalks because as a city we have prioritized public spaces for people. That same principle should apply to delivery robots — it’s not a complete ban, what we are saying is they have no place on our already congested and crowded sidewalks.”
Earlier this year three states legalized robot deliveries: Idaho, Wisconsin and Virginia. Virginia, for example, placed a 50-lb. weight limit and 10-mph speed limit on the devices. There are pilot programs in Washington, D.C. and Redwood City.
Small Business Commission Chair Mark Dwight said that the ban is “contrary to our self-proclamation as a center of technology development.”
He added, “Bans just preclude all kinds of good things from happening.” He also said that a ban was a “knee-jerk reaction” around a “speculative concern about safety.”
But Small Business Commissioner Kathleen Dooley, who was the only member to support the ban, argued safety concerns were self-evident without actual reported incidents. “We may not have hard data but if anyone in this room walks around in San Francisco we see how amazingly congested the streets are.”
Dooley also raised two other concerns: the prospect of taking away “many entry level jobs that are shrinking away every day,” a concern shared by the Teamsters union, and the lack of enforcement. “The enforcement factor in this town is the weakest link in our administration. There is just not the manpower to do that properly.”
Dwight, who owns Rickshaw Bagworks, which makes custom bags, said concerns over job loss shouldn’t be used to stifle innovation. “There would be a lot of things in this society that were based on technology that wouldn’t exist today if we were just concerned about people losing their jobs,” Dwight said. “We wouldn’t have sewing machines. What would I be doing? Sewing all my bags by hand? That’s a 150-year-old technology that made it a lot easier to make the things we wear and carry.”
Small Business Commissioner William Ortiz-Cartagena said he could support an interim moratorium but not an outright ban. “I can never say never. I’d prefer to see a moratorium. I was very upset when Uber came and their mentality is forgiveness as opposed to permission. Sometimes technology is the opportunity for small businesses to be creative.”
Among the first robot delivery companies to operate in San Francisco is Marble Robotics, which is located in Potrero Hill.
Harrison Shih, Marble’s head of Product and Operations, said he would like to work with City Hall. “Safety is one of our top priorities,” Shih said. “As we are testing right now we have been vocal about our support for reasonable regulation.”
He added, “We have a chaperone right now with every one of our robots during testing.”
Marble was one of two companies to apply for and receive a temporary permit from Public Works. Marble’s permit was for a delivery service in partnership with Mission’s Truly Mediterranean food take-out restaurant between June 13 and June 27.
On Aug. 16, Jack In the Box announced in a video on YouTube and Facebook its partnership with Marble and DoorDash, showing footage of “a very special test delivery” by a robot named “Happy” in and out of the fast food chain’s Fisherman Wharf location at 2739 Taylor St. delivering an order to employees in a nearby office building.
“Happy will carry your DoorDash order across town right to your office or home,” the ad reads.
When asked if there was a permit issued for Happy’s operation documented in the ad, Public Works spokesperson Rachel Gordon said “it does not appear” that Public Works had issued any additional permits for Marble since June.
“Our inspectors are investigating,” Gordon said.
DoorDash confirmed it is testing operations with Marble in San Francisco, but DoorDash spokesperson Kristen Webster said “we are not currently operating out of the Fisherman’s Wharf Jack in the Box location.”
The Board of Supervisors returns from its summer legislative recess next week. The board’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee may hold a hearing on the robot delivery ban on Sept. 13.