Navigating the sidewalks of any major American city can be an adventure, as countless pedestrians blend with newsstands, street performers, bikes and other features that create a vibrant urban environment. But now, policymakers on all levels in the Bay Area and across the country must carefully consider how to make room for another new player on our sidewalks: the future.
Businesses are feverishly trying to adapt to a fundamental change in the consumer marketplace. For all of history, consumers have traveled to a marketplace to engage in commerce. Whether it was a Greek agora, a Middle Eastern bazaar, a main street or a shopping mall, consumers traveled to the product. Now, that fundamental economic exercise is quickly growing antiquated: Modern consumers increasingly want products to come to them.
As a result, the regulatory policies that provided the rules of the road (and the sidewalk) for the old economy have become obsolete almost overnight. Even San Francisco, the spiritual home of Silicon Valley and the gig economy — along with the innovation and entrepreneurship that entails — is struggling to find solutions. The latest example involves delivery robots.
Numerous companies in San Francisco have recently begun test-driving delivery robots, which can be seen on city streets carrying an array of products to customers — most commonly food orders. San Francisco residents are becoming increasingly accustomed to sharing the sidewalk with a variety of these devices as they navigate city streets completing their tasks. But like countless other aspects of the new economy, there are new and unanticipated challenges that come with it.
In the case of the robot delivery vehicles, the top concern is public safety. The robots have occasionally run into cars, struck utility poles and splashed into fountains — not to mention bumping into pedestrians. Additionally, there is an elevated danger of an accidental interaction with a pedestrian who is visually or physically impaired.
In response, San Francisco Supervisor Norman Yee recently introduced legislation that would completely ban delivery robots — not regulate them, ban them. Yee explained his bill by noting that once this and similar technology is widely accepted, it will be nearly impossible to regulate. He may have a point, but he also believes it is easier just to prevent the adoption at the outset by banning its existence. That’s not the right answer, either.
This is the conundrum: Common sense tells us that a choice between technology with no guardrails or stifling innovation is a false choice. The challenge for policymakers is calibrating rules that create an environment for innovation that benefits the economy while protecting consumer interests — or in the case of delivery robots, pedestrians.
The safety concerns related to a hunk of metal barreling down the sidewalk toward a busy crosswalk are legitimate. Similar issues exist around autonomous vehicles and other drone technologies. Safety concerns should always take precedent, but as new technologies emerge that can transform our lives, policymakers would be wise to review barriers to market entry. Americans will be best served over the longer term if we can balance safety and consumer protection while still fostering ingenuity and progress.
Joe Rinzel is a spokesperson for Americans for a Modern Economy, a consumer advocacy group focused on modernizing antiquated regulations and laws governing the U.S. economy.