SF’s robot delivery ban does not compute with business leaders

With strong opposition from the business community, a proposal to ban robot deliveries on sidewalks stalled Monday.

The legislation, introduced by Supervisor Norman Yee, was wending itself through the legislative process with a required hearing before the Small Business Commission.

But during that hearing Monday, Yee’s legislative representative called on the commission not to vote on the proposal and said it remained a work in progress with pending meetings and discussion with companies — Starship, Dispatch and Marble, which is a local business — that make the robots.

“I am delighted to hear that the supervisor has decided to reconsider an outright ban right now and do some more research,” said Small Business Commission Chair Mark Dwight. “Because we do regard our city as a center for innovation and technology development…I would be really disappointed if The City precluded any development in this area by banning something before we even know where it is headed.”

The ban was proposed over concerns with pedestrian safety, although additional issues robots raise is the impact on jobs. The proposal would prohibit the operation of an Autonomous Delivery Device in or on any public sidewalk or right-of-way, and a violation would come with an up to $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

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Yee’s representative told the San Francisco Examiner after the meeting that the supervisor is open to more discussion but remains committed to the proposal unless the safety concerns could somehow be adequately addressed.

But anything less than an outright ban would raise numerous other questions for already crowded sidewalks.

“Myself, as someone who uses the sidewalk everyday, it is so congested. There’s people using sidewalks for their bikes, for their skateboards, for their little scooters,” said Small Business Commission member Kathleen Dooley said. “I really want to hear what refinements you come up with. I mean, downtown, I can’t even imagine.You can barely walk as a pedestrian.”

Much of that behavior Dooley described is not legal. Mobile pushcarts are allowed on sidewalks but bicycles, scoots, skateboards and Segway scooters are not.

Monday’s delay comes after the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce came out against the proposal.

“Prohibiting the use of new technology in The City, whether it is ‘robot’ delivery vehicles or any other systems, will force this product development not only out of The City, but perhaps out of the Bay Area,” wrote Jim Lazarus, the chamber’s senior vice president of public policy, in a letter Monday to the commission. “This legislation is in search of a problem where there is no evidence that one exists.”

Yee’s legislative aide Erica Maybaum told the commission that “Yee of course supports small businesses and supports innovation.”

“Robots can be used positively to impact our city and can also have civic uses,” Maybaum said. “But when the business model uses public space the need of residents and impact to the quality of life needs to be at the forefront.”

The way the robot deliveries work is that customers track the robot using an app on their smartphone, and when the robot arrives they receive and alert and a code to unlock the compartment containing their order.

The Department of Public Works approved a one-day pilot program for Starship about a year ago and in May created a pilot robot permitting program, which expires in December, according to a report by the Office of Small Business. The program allows a 14-day permit for operation after at least 72 hour notice to the public and a $1 million insurance policy.

There is currently one permit issued under the program to Marble, which is docked at Truly Mediterranean at 3109 16th St., according to the report.

A Board of Supervisors committee is expected to hold a hearing on the legislation in September, following a second hearing before the Small Business Commission.

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