Transportation Systems Casebook/Sidewalk Based Delivery Robots

Summary edit

Starship Technologies is a startup company building fleets of self-driving sidewalk-based delivery robots designed to deliver goods locally within 15-30 minutes in up to a two-mile radius from a local hub. The robots drive autonomously 99 percent of the time to make curb-side deliveries. When encountering a situation the robot cannot handle, it will be remotely piloted over the internet. Launched by Skype co-founders, Starship’s aim is to fundamentally reshape how goods are shipped and delivered. There are a few other competitors to Starship Technologies, but with strategic partnerships like with Daimler the company is emerging as a leader in this new transportation mode that has several challenges to successful widespread implementation.

Annotated List of Actors edit

Ahti Heinla edit

CEO, CTO and co-founder of Starship Technologies. Also a co-founder of Skype. [1]

Daimler (Mercedes-Benz) edit

Major automotive manufacturer and investor in Starship Technologies who has launched "pilot projects combining Mercedes-Benz vans and delivery robots" [2]

Dispatch edit

Startup company and competitor to Starship Technologies. [3]

DoorDash and Postmates edit

Food delivery startups conducting pilot testing with Starship delivery robots [4]

District Department of Transportation edit

Approved testing of Starship six-wheeled delivery robots in summer 2016 to run from September 15 through December 2017. [5]

Janus Friis edit

Co-founder of Starship Technologies and also co-founded Joost, Skype, Kazaa and Joltid . [6]

Marble edit

Startup "urban logistics" company and competitor to Starship Technologies. [7]

Virginia Commonwealth edit

Passed SB1207 in February 2017, which "allows for the operation of electric personal delivery devices on the sidewalks and shared-use paths and across roadways on crosswalks in the Commonwealth unless otherwise prohibited by a locality." [8]

Timeline of Events edit

  • July 1, 2014 - Starship Technologies is founded.
  • August 2014 - First robot prototype is created.
  • December 2014 - First Starship Technologies office opens in Tallinn, Estonia.
  • September 2016 - Mercedes-Benz Vans partnership with Starship Technologies is announced.
  • January 2017 - Starship Technologies announces $17.2M in funding.
  • March 2017 - Starship Technologies office opens in Washington, D.C.
  • April 2017 - Starship Technologies office opens in Hamburg, Germany.
  • July 2017 - Delivery Robots are approved for testing on sidewalks in five states: Florida, Idaho, Wisconsin and Virginia plus the District of Columbia. Virginia is the first state to codify electric personal delivery devices.
  • August 2017 - Just Eat announces it has delivered its 1000th meal in London by robot [9]

Maps of Locations edit

This is a Google Map of the five states that currently have laws in place allowing for sidewalk-based delivery robots. It also shows San Francisco that is debating whether to ban or allow for testing.

Narrative of the Case edit

In DC area, street delivery robots recently appeared on the sidewalks. They are designed to deliver takeout food from restaurants to customers. Starship Technologies, an Estonian-based ground delivery robotics company, has teamed up with Postmates and Dashdoor, online delivery service providers, to deliver food. The robot is a medium-sized, knee-height with six wheels. Each robot is about 35-pounds. The average speed is about 4 miles per hour which is a little bit slower than the human walking speed of 5 miles per hour. It is equipped with an orange flag to make it more visible to pedestrians on the sidewalk. After receiving an order from a customer, normally via a smartphone app, takeout food will be placed inside the robot by restaurant staff. The customer can also make the payment, including the delivery fee, via the mobile app. The robot will then deliver the order to the customer along the street and sidewalk. The customer will be notified by the app to expect that the robot is coming. Using the app, the customer can unlock the lid on top of the robot, take out the food and close the lid. Then, the robot will be dismissed by marking as one successful delivery. [10]

The robot is operated through the mobile app. When placing an order, a consumer can input the destination for delivery. The destination can either be coordinates or street names, the same inputs as people traveling to a place. The robot is equipped with GPS, sensors and cameras etc. Artificial intelligence technologies are applied to facilitate integrating all the technologies so the robot can drive by itself. [11]

The built-in artificial intelligence technologies allow the robot to learn more about sidewalks, traffic patterns and interaction with pedestrians. They are able to learn and recognize signals, traffic lights, crosswalks, pedestrians and animals. Integrated navigation and obstacle avoidance software enables the robot to drive mostly on its own.

Human supervision and monitoring is needed in case the robot needs to be operated manually for situations that involving in safety, emergency or beyond robot’s ability to manage. A human operator can take over by through remote access. The robot is equipped with security system, such as alarm sounds, cameras and tracking devices, to prevent theft. Normally, the value inside the robot is not expensive. However, they are equipped for this scenario just in case. Each robot can carry the equivalent of two grocery bags (around 22 pounds) up to three miles from a local hub, restaurant or retail outlet. Customers will be able to choose a delivery route and expect goods to be delivered at a time that fits their schedule. A shopper can also track the robot’s location in real time during delivery. Therefore, they can meet the robot at the set destination to finish the delivery. [12]

While Starship is testing its robots in Washington, D.C. area, Virginia has made robotics history. The Commonwealth was the first state to pass legislation allowing delivery robots to operate on sidewalks and crosswalks across the state. The new law goes into effect on July 1, 2017 and was signed into law by the governor. The two Virginia lawmakers who sponsored the bill, Ron Villanueva and Bill DeSteph, teamed up with Starship Technologies to draft the legislation. Idaho, Wisconsin, Florida likewise passed state legislation to allow for the use of delivery robots earlier this year — all with the help of Starship Technologies. Ohio is now the fifth U.S. state to pass a law permitting the use of delivery robots on sidewalks and in crosswalks statewide. The regulations for each state are listed below with the sequence of the state passing the sidewalk delivery robot law:

1. Virginia (Signed on 2/24/2017) edit

Robots operating under the VA law won’t be able to exceed 10 miles per hour or weigh over 50 pounds, but they will be allowed to rove autonomously. The law doesn’t require robots to stay within line of sight of a person in control, but a person is required to at least remotely monitor the robot and take over if it goes awry. Robots are only allowed on streets in a crosswalk. [13]

2. Idaho (Signed on 3/27/2017) edit

Ground-based delivery robots are allowed to operate in Idaho without a person walking alongside them or watching them in their line of sight. In other words: The robots can operate autonomously in Idaho. But there still has to be a remote monitor somewhere in the loop to intervene in case one of the rovers needs assistance. The delivery robots that fall under the law can’t go faster than 10 miles per hour. Similar to the Virginia legislation, local Idaho municipalities are allowed to adopt their own regulations, like if a town wants to prevent the operation of the robots in certain crosswalks or limit the speed of the devices. [14]

3. Wisconsin (Signed on 6/21/2017) edit

The Wisconsin law places an 80-pound weight limit on the robots and doesn’t permit the machines to travel faster than 10 miles per hour. The robots are also required to have a person in the loop to take over control in case something goes awry. The 80-pound limit, however, might mean that some of Starship’s competitors can’t operate in the state. [15]

4. Florida (Signed on 6/26/2017) edit

Robots operating on sidewalks and crosswalks in Florida will not be allowed to weigh over 80 pounds or travel faster than 10 miles per hour. That weight limit is important to note as it could lock out other ground robot companies from operating in the state. That’s because some of Starship’s competitors, including the robot delivery startup Marble, which started a trial in San Francisco earlier this year, make robots that weigh more than 80 pounds. The three other state laws similarly have potentially prohibitive weight limits. (Starship’s robots weigh 45 pounds when empty.) [16]

5. Ohio (Signed on 6/30/2017) edit

Ohio’s new robot law allows for the machines to operate on sidewalks and in crosswalks in the state, so long as they weigh less than 90 pounds and travel at speeds of less than 10 miles per hour. The robots can rove unmanned, but a person is required to be in the loop remotely to take over operation in case something goes awry. All the other state laws have near identical provisions, with weight limits ranging from 50 to 90 pounds. [17]

6. San Francisco (City ordinance signed 10/27/2017) edit

San Francisco was considering banning sidewalk delivery robots. This is despite being home to tech company Marble that is testing robot similar to Starship's. San Francisco supervisor Norman Yee said "our streets and our sidewalks are made for people, not robots" and also expressed concern that delivery jobs would be eliminated. SF police commander Robert O'Sullivan is also in favor of the ban fearing potential harm to children, the elderly or people in wheelchairs. "If his by a car, they also have the potential of becoming a deadly projectile," he said. [18] However, San Francisco has implemented a city ordinance that establishes a permit system and allows for testing of delivery robots in certain zones and within a list of permitted parameters. [19]

Policy Implications edit

Potential Benefits edit

  • Reduced congestion from larger delivery vehicles
  • Since they are electrically powered with a lithium-ion battery, they can reduce urban air pollution
  • Reduced costs for customers and businesses spurring more economic activity

Potential Negative Impacts edit

  • Reduction in employment or impacts to the nature of delivery services
  • Crowding of constrained urban space now reserved for pedestrians and people in wheelchairs - i.e. a few sidewalk robots will not cause too much of an issue, but what happens beyond a certain critical mass?

Consequences to employment and society edit

The primary motivators for these robots is convenience and cost. By lowering the cost of delivery, this will likely induce more customers to order from restaurants and at a lower costs per item. DoorDash co-founder Stanley Tang said that the company will not attempt to replace human workers with robots. He said, “We have people who use cars, bikes, scooters, motorcycles or walk to make a delivery. And each has a different strength and suitability for different deliveries. Robots will be another type of vehicle in our system.” He continued that since human "dashers" depend on tips, they prefer not to do a lot of lower cost deliveries. [20]

Matt Delaney, one of Marble’s three co-founders who called robots “the only sane solution” said that these sidewalk-based delivery robots could improve quality of life for people like his grandfather, who lost his driver’s license and has to hire someone for tasks like picking up prescriptions at the pharmacy. [21]

Potential solutions to employment impacts edit

South Korea is the first country to implement a "robot tax" by "limiting tax incentives for investments in automated machines." Also, Bill Gates has called for a tax on robots as jobs are lost to automation. He said it could help slow down the pace of change and provide money to hire additional employees in sectors that require people, such as health care, as well as to fund worker retraining. Gates said: "Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level." [22]

Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Solar City, Tesla, and SpaceX said that robots will push us to a universal basic income (UBI) and that is the reasonable next step for the U.S. "There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income or something like that, due to automation," Musk told CNBC. "Yeah, I am not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen." [23]

Lessons Learned edit

The challenges of robot delivery include finding their way around roads and sidewalks, navigating next to vehicles and around pedestrians, and interacting more directly with humans. In addition, GPS isn’t accurate enough to keep the robots on sidewalks. The robots have to use equipped sensors to detect the surroundings and determine proper actions via the built-in artificial intelligence. They will have to rely on digital street maps like autonomous cars do. They will have to be able to face and react appropriately under the following situations:

  • Traffic lights
  • Pedestrian crossing behaviors and patterns
  • Emergency vehicles
  • Unpredictable humans and animals


Sharing a sidewalk with delivery robots is another issue. The robot moves a little bit slower than people walking. The motion may be like every few feet it pauses, jerking to the left or right, perhaps turning around, and then turning again before continuing on its way. Accommodation to the street delivery robot will have to be accepted by the public. It may need more time and experiences to determine if the public will fully accept them.

Sidewalk-traversing robots are one of several possible solutions to the “last-mile” logistics. “With just a handful of robots in service, urban areas have yet to face any backlash. But the revolutionary promise of robot deliveries will only be realized if these companies achieve thousands and thousands of robots in thousands of cities around the world.” according to the San Jose Mercury News. [25]

Discussion Questions edit

  • Will robots disrupt the fabric of urban neighborhoods?
  • Can sidewalk robots be made sufficiently safe and secure and not potentially used for harmful purposes (i.e. terrorists hiding a device in one)?
  • Are pedestrians prepared to jostle for limited sidewalk space?
  • Are robots safe without risking hurting pedestrians during operation and who is liable for injury?
  • Will (or should) sidewalks be adapted for robots?
  • Are sidewalks maintained appropriately in meeting the needs for robotic operations?

Further Reading edit

Gaskill, Tyler. 2017. "Conquering the Last Mile." Quality Progress 50 (4): 10-12.

Reference edit

  1. [1], Crunchbase Profile.
  2. [2] Mercedes-Benz Vans invests in Starship Technologies, the world's leading manufacturer of delivery robots.
  3. [3], Dispatch company website.
  4. [4], Postmates and DoorDash are testing delivery by robot with Starship Technologies
  5. [5], Washington Post. June 24, 2016. "It's official: Drone delivery is coming to D.C. in September"
  6. [6], Crunchbase Profile.
  7. [7], Marble company website.
  8. [8], Virginia Commonwealth Legislative Information System.
  9. [9] Just Eat deliver 1,000th meal in London by robot ]
  10. [10], Hungry? Call your neighborhood delivery robot.
  11. [11], Hungry? Call your neighborhood delivery robot.
  12. [12], Startup Developing Autonomous Delivery Robots That Travel on Sidewalks.
  13. [13], Virginia is the first state to pass a law allowing robots to deliver straight to your door.
  14. [14], Idaho is the second state to allow unmanned robots to deliver to your front door.
  15. [15], Wisconsin is now the third state to allow delivery robots.
  16. [16], Florida is now the fourth state to permit delivery robots on sidewalks.
  17. [17], Ohio is now the fifth U.S. state to permit delivery robots on sidewalks.
  18. [18], 'Our streets are made for people': San Francisco mulls ban on delivery robots.
  19. [19], Delivery Robots Will Now Need Permits To Replace Us.
  20. [20], Postmates and DoorDash are testing delivery by robot with Starship Technologies.
  21. [21] Delivery robots: a revolutionary step or a sidewalk clogging nightmare?
  22. [22], South Korea introduces world's first 'robot tax'
  23. [23] Elon Musk says robots will push us to a universal basic income - here's how it would work.
  24. [24] Startup Developing Autonomous Delivery Robots That Travel on Sidewalks.
  25. [25], Delivery robots: a revolutionary step or sidewalk-clogging nightmare?