Future Tense

Delivery Bots Could Make Cities More Accessible for Everyone

But it will require cities to take advantage of this opportunity.

Delivery robot DAX is seen navigating a sidewalk on April 25, 2018 in Philomath, Oregon.
Delivery robot DAX is seen navigating a sidewalk on April 25, 2018 in Philomath, Oregon. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Natalie Behring/Getty Images.

Last week, Washington’s governor (and presidential hopeful) Jay Inslee signed a bill allowing robots to roll through the state, delivering goods and food orders. Washington joins seven other states that have legalized bot deliveries, and other cities and college campuses have allowed companies to pilot their services.

The news came on the heels of Amazon’s first-quarter earnings meeting, where CFO Brian Olsavsky announced that the company is “evolving” its Prime service to deliver purchases to customers within a day instead of the current standard two-day delivery. With the curtailed delivery window, Amazon will likely need all the help it can get. So, it’s no wonder that Amazon is testing its own delivery bot called Scout. Scout looks like a child’s drawing of a truck: a rectangular bin on six wheels. The company’s promo video for it shows our little friend rolling along sidewalks and crosswalks to a very nice suburban-looking home, where a woman comes out the front door right when it arrives and walks out to the sidewalk to intercept her package.

It was a nice little scene to watch, but the Seattle I know looks nothing like the utopian scene depicted in the video. The streets in my neighborhood are hilly, and the sidewalks are narrow and buckled from tree roots. Sometimes cyclists ride on the sidewalks to avoid traffic, sharing space with pedestrians, their dogs, and the rentable e-bikes parked in the middle of the path. There are few ramps between sidewalks and the street—just curbs—and in many areas, you have to go several blocks to find an intersection with a marked crosswalk, and even more if you want to find a crosswalk with auditory crossing cues for those with impaired vision. Scout would have a hard time navigating all this, and as many have pointed out, people might have a hard time navigating around Scout, too.

Perhaps new tech like Scout could be what spurs more accessible city design, creating more navigable public spaces for everyone. While people have been advocating for improved accessibility for decades, it’s an ugly reality that when it comes to city planning, money talks: The promise of Google jobs has convinced several cities to allow the company to experiment with their internet and telephone infrastructure, leaving messes along the way, and Amazon has built cycle tracks around its downtown Seattle offices. It wouldn’t be surprising if cities were more motivated to improve infrastructure if they knew it could provide economic opportunity. “People with [the American with Disabilities Act] have been trying to bring the primacy of sidewalks back for almost 30 years, and here are these agents that might make that change much faster because of the commercial considerations,” says Anat Caspi, director of the Taskar Center for Accessible Technology at the University of Washington.

Washington’s bill lays out a few ground rules for bots’ behavior: They can travel no faster than 6 miles an hour, they must give pedestrians the right of way, and they must follow all rules applicable to pedestrians, like waiting at crosswalks and yielding to cars. The idea, according to the Washington Democrats’ blog, is that these bots could decrease traffic congestion by preventing “the unnecessary use of full-sized vehicles in the road.” But that doesn’t address congestion on the sidewalk. “One of the things that’s concerning me about this is the fact that sidewalks are not being viewed as a limited resource utility,” says Caspi. Like water and electricity, sidewalk space is finite, and any bots traveling on the sidewalk are taking up room pedestrians could be using. For able-bodied adults, sidewalk space may seem like no big deal; these bots are designed to yield to people, and you can navigate around them. But for people with a physical disability, it may not be so easy. “It makes me nervous to know that there would be things like that taking up sidewalk space,” says Heidi Johnson-Wright, an ADA coordinator for a large municipality and a wheelchair user.

While the ADA mandates that all U.S. sidewalks be at least 36 inches wide, functionally, road signs, bus benches or shelters, or utility poles can encroach upon maneuverable space.
In an ideal world, cities would redesign sidewalks to ensure equitable use for all pedestrians, but if that’s not ample motivation to do the right thing, perhaps lobbying from bot companies or economic threats from bot-human conflicts, especially in busier parts of town, might serve as additional motivation. Bot company Starship Technologies, which delivers meals to students on college campuses, “worked closely with Washington state lawmakers” on the bill, according to Geekwire, and, in a fitting gimmick, delivered the bill to Inslee, so it doesn’t seem far-fetched that these companies might lobby for other changes to ensure their products thrive.

Bigger sidewalks may also curtail bot-bot conflicts on the horizon. Currently, according to Caspi, there are at least eight companies working on delivery bots. In addition to Amazon and Starship, FedEx and Postmates are developing their own bots, and there’s Kiwi, Marble, ANYbotics’ ANYmal, and more in development. Nothing in Washington’s bill describes right of way between two bots, and the technology has not reached a point where it’s likely two will have a showdown on a local sidewalk. But if bots achieve even a fraction of popularity of other app-based on-demand services like ride-shares and food delivery, we’ll be seeing a lot of them whizzing through our cities. (Six miles an hour may not sound very fast, but that’s about the speed of a jogger passing you—not disruptive, per se, but noticeably faster than the typical pedestrian.) How to ensure equitable use for all users, human or bot, is an open question. Caspi says that one possibility might be something like limiting the number of miles each company’s bots are allowed to travel per day.

Bots will also need to navigate other city obstacles, like curbs and steeply graded streets in cities like Seattle and San Francisco. (Some bots can handle small curbs and hills, but the technology is still developing.) Again, in an ideal world, a city might opt to design intersections to include curb ramps accessible by all, but that’s not the current reality, so people who depend on properly placed, properly graded, and well-maintained curb ramps to get around learn routes that work best for them. There are also tools like the Taskar Center’s Access Map, which maps Seattle streets by steepness and includes information about the presence of curb ramps and marked crosswalks.

As bots process their surroundings using internal cameras and sensors, there’s an opportunity for delivery bots’ data to inform resources like the access map—but there’s currently no talk of that. “It’s disappointing that this law doesn’t also include some stipulations about contributing the data back to the public, because currently localities and states don’t have means of surveying the built environment to the level of detail these robots require. That would be hugely beneficial to people with mobility limitations,” says Caspi. As long as these bots will be gathering data around our city, “we may as well be getting something back in terms of public benefit.”

Bots are just one movable technology that cities now have to reckon with. In the last few years, the popularity of small motorized vehicles like electronic bikes, scooters, skateboards, and hoverboards have skyrocketed, and questions linger about what spaces they can or should occupy. (Here in Seattle, the city recently expanded existing rules about bike path use to include e-bikes that travel up to 15 mph.) With literal and figurative clashes between pedestrians and people speeding by on motorized vehicles, companies like Bird have offered to contribute to new bike lanes, much to the chagrin of cyclists.

Concerned citizens have put forth ideas for converting streets into thoroughfares for small motorized vehicle lanes, or even redesigning streets to designate lanes based on speed of users. It’s unclear where, exactly, delivery bots would fit into that, but a system that accommodates users with diverse needs—bot or human—it’s likely to be a win for all involved. Johnson-Wright points out that good urban design isn’t just a matter of being ADA compliant: It improves mobility for parents pushing their children in strollers, people who use roller bags to commute. “If we design in a way that accommodates people with disabilities, it makes life easier for everyone.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.