By Bern Grush, Harmonize Mobility Inc., Toronto
It is expected that in some places and times service robots will be permitted to operate on public sidewalks, pathways, bicycle paths, and roadways. Will their introduction impact central business districts in our cities? Could they impact parking revenue? Will they create a need for new forms of public, shared-space monetization related to their use?
No one is surprised that we could expect some changes in the parking industry due to AVs, especially autonomous taxis for ridehailing. Ride hailing has already shown it can negatively impact parking demand.1 Surely, if the robotaxi arrives as promised — even cheaper and more reliable than ride-hailing — then parking demand would contract accordingly. But the continuous failure of promises from the autonomous passenger-vehicle industry since 2015 says this scenario is still on the far horizon — if anywhere.
Sidewalk-scaled delivery robots, also called personal delivery devices (PDDs), are far more likely to be in pervasive service in our cities and suburbs sooner than robotaxis will provide regular passenger service. This is because the multiple barriers to deployment of these sidewalk robots are more easily surmounted than the equivalent deployment barriers for the robotaxi.2
The single largest barrier to the robotaxi to date is that they are unable to go anywhere at any meaningful scale without a human in the driver seat. Hence, they cannot immediately threaten the ride-hailing industry. That barrier does not exist for the PDD, which is teleoperated at worst and increasingly merely telemonitored. Today, the leading PDD technology permits one person to concurrently operate two or three. And these can be miles apart.
What that means is that as PDD self-reliance moves from 99% to 99.99%, the ratio of robots to operator will improve from 2:1 and eventually to 10:1 or 20:1. But as the robotaxi moves from 99% to 99.99% self-reliance each still requires at least one human worker to operate it. The PDD will close in on economic viability far sooner than can automated ride-hailing. It is already doing so.
Many things pave the way
Many factors make personal, electric, robotic deliveries appear very likely to succeed and expand rapidly. These include growth in e-commerce, expanding demand for rapid delivery (especially for meals), and the rising costs of local delivery services. Add to these market forces the desire of many city planners to reduce the environmental and congestion cost of using delivery vans and cars for small package deliveries and you have a ready market for these urban service robots.
Prior to 2020, PDDs had been used primarily on college-campuses. Since then, the pandemic accelerated their use, familiarity, and acceptance for socially-distanced food, grocery, and medical deliveries. The pandemic that decimated many local retail districts in North America has created an opportunity for these PDDs to help Business Improvement Areas (BIAs) and their communities to recover more rapidly.
Using sidewalk robots for consumer deliveries
Assuming direct, personal, final-mile, consumer deliveries as a primary business intent for PDDs, these may be deployed in a number of ways. A few might be operated by a local logistics provider or a retailer — perhaps a lunch shop — to make local meal deliveries. Several robotic makers already provide such leasing services. A larger number might be used by an e-commerce operator, such as Amazon, to move goods from micro-warehouses, strategically-positioned staging areas, or from large, parked trailers or vans (“mother-ships”) to residents in a two or three km radius. Others could be used to deliver meals-on-wheels from a local charity kitchen, or be deployed as gig workers are now, moving on-demand from one delivery to the next, like a robotic Uber-Delivers. Still others might be used in an express-delivery service, such as FedEx and UPS do now when delivering packages for retailers and businesses, but in a strictly local environment suitable for personal-scaled deliveries, especially for residential deliveries which have grown dramatically in the past few years.
There are many dozens of such potential usage scenarios, each with varying advantages and disadvantages to merchants, consumers, residents, and pedestrians local to their operation. But what all of these delivery-service applications have in common is commercial trade. The more localized such trade — preferably in direct connection and without intermediary hand-offs between retailer or kitchen to consumer — the more this technology can act as an optimizer of time and cost. As well, sidewalk robots appear to fit well with ideas such as the 15-minute city, the walkable neighbourhood, and the car-free community in that they can help reduce the requirement for the private automobile and the contribution delivery stepvans make to congestion.
Are sidewalk robots a good idea?
Central to the context of this article is whether the PDD can improve the post-COVID and eCommerce fortunes of BIAs. The promoters of these robots promise many related advantages.
From a community perspective, they would be smaller, quieter, and cleaner (CO2) than the delivery step vans that are common today in many cities and towns. They could deliver food, groceries and other goods to seniors and the disabled. They could enhance meals-on-wheels programs. They would improve consumer reach by extending the effective radius of walkable neighbourhoods while simultaneously reducing the demand for private car ownership.
From the perspective of the local retailer, they could help address the e-commerce crunch and compete against the “amazons” by lowering costs for local delivery. This could help to mitigate the high delivery cost for food that was an added hardship for so many restaurants during the pandemic.
From the perspective of jobs, these devices can generate direct local employment (teleoperators, maintainers, managers, and handlers), but more importantly they increment retail employment to the degree local retailers prosper. Interestingly, some of the new jobs involving teleoperation can be performed from a worker’s home including by employees with accessibility issues that might be confined to wheelchairs — people who could not previously engage in the logistics or delivery industry.
From the perspective of the urban environment, these devices might precipitate more robust sidewalk design and maintenance. In a recent conversation I had with John Kiru, Executive Director of Toronto’s TABIA, it was made clear that many Toronto sidewalks are still too narrow and do not yet comply with applicable accessibility regulations. John also pointed to the critical importance of planters, uncluttered pedestrian clearways and the ability to promenade. His comments apply to most cities in the world.
Are sidewalk robots a bad idea?
As just noted, some sidewalks can be difficult for pedestrians with accessibility challenges. These are already complex places for the abled — when they are crowded or when people are walking pets, pushing strollers, dragging carts, carrying bags, using skateboards, or reading phones. If we add to this mix of humans, robots of varying sizes and speeds, fledgling pedestrian skills, and non-existent social skills, we could threaten perceived safety and detract from pedestrian comfort and enjoyment as they stroll, shop, or walk to an appointment.
Added to this are questions about privacy and security. Privacy, because the devices will capture image and other data in order to navigate and document their work. And security in terms of physical mishaps that might injure pedestrians or pets, or worse if a bad actor where to intentionally employ a robot(s) in a criminal enterprise.
We also need to consider that many people have worked very hard during the past decades to reclaim urban space for pedestrians, cyclists, and other active forms of transportation. For this reason, many people will be unwilling to consider sidewalk robots unless their advantages clearly outweigh any loss of pedestrian autonomy.
Lastly, I return to the question of jobs. Yes, new jobs will be created, but automation also replaces and displaces human workers. More often it creates new opportunities, but this still causes dislocation and requires re-training, and that inevitably leaves some behind. So, the jobs question is not easy to answer. It is naive to see this going only one way, but it is wrong to dismiss the issue. This is a place for government intervention with programs to smooth this transition, while promulgating a degree of flexibility and learning of new skills.
I am often asked: “Do we really want these robots on our sidewalks?” My answer is always the same: “Not the way most sidewalks are now, not yet without fully attentive teleoperation (i.e., we are not ready for full autonomy, SAE Level 4 or 5), not beyond a trial of devices from a single operator (we are unprepared for multi-operator systems sharing the same space), and not without a secure, IoT-based, ground-control system under municipal governance.
One critical approach to maximize the likelihood of beneficial development of this technology is the ISO draft technical standard (DTS) 4448: “Ground-based automated mobility systems”, commenced in 2019.3 Briefly, this standard sets out the procedures and behavioral rules to make regulating, governing and operating these fleet systems a coherent process. The structure of the implied systems and its data are common, but the local jurisdiction sets appropriate, behavioral constraints. This is done in a way that permits makers to develop robots and their communication systems, planners to design deployments, local jurisdictions to ensure appropriate infrastructure and governance guidelines, insurance companies to provide coverage, and logistics and transportation operators to proceed safety and profitably.
Based on the draft ISO standard addressing sidewalk robots, any infrastructure upgrades for robots must target guidelines for accessibility and pedestrian access. So, there is clearly an opportunity for a win-win for both commercial interests and pedestrian accessibility.
Can local thinking sustain local growth?
In communities with a sufficient local population, pervasive local infrastructure such as wider and better designed sidewalks, cycling systems, and slower streets, as well as local technology such as same-hour delivery systems are more likely to engender an increase in footfall and to sustain local commerce than would continuing the more car-oriented approach suitable for big-box stores.
Could well-managed systems of sidewalk robots help BIAs recover post-COVID?
Given the extensive value BIAs represent, this is an important question. Perhaps same-hour delivery robots would help some local merchants compete against eCommerce, but would those same robots be a nuisance for customers sitting at a sidewalk café? If local delivery systems became pervasive, might that increase the number of local purchases in a zero-sum competition with box stores? In a world that is changing to prize sidewalk and parklet cafes and restaurants, might a prevalence of sidewalk robots discourage footfall with its promenading and impulse purchases? Or would renewed pedestrian infrastructure benefit all parties: residents, merchants, local shoppers, and livability advocates alike?
While it is too soon to be certain, there are steps that may be taken to prepare BIAs, towns, and cities for the turns this will take.
What about parking and monetization?
What all of these PDD services have in common are sidewalks, crosswalks, and bike lanes. These small robotic delivery technologies move machine activities from road and parking zones into active transportation and pedestrian spaces. That is, from spaces that are currently regulated and monetizable for parking and loading into spaces for which we have little or no regulatory, social or technical experience.
One of the most important early steps to be taken is to determine the management rules to apply to these systems. Because this is a complex, shared, public space, management will be non-trivial, and will require a budget. That budget would be most appropriately funded through user fees.
ISO DTS 4448 enables variable user fees, based on time and place. This provides the best management handle for managing the commons, ensuring a congestion control mechanism, and funding infrastructure. The best systems-thinking applied to parking pricing today can be extended to apply to sidewalk robots assigning prices to time slices and block-faces, recorded by a sidewalk route reservation system implied by ISO 4448.
Innovative companies now at the forefront of highly digitalized parking system technologies, included LPR, GPS, IoT, local sensors, etc., are the ones with the best opportunity to move us into this robotic era.ν
Last-Mile Services | Access Credentials
So-called “last-mile services” are integrating parking technology into your customers’ experience before they even arrive at your.
Since the early days of the COVID-19 global pandemic through to today, it has been all hands-on deck to develop creative solutions to address all our partners’ parking, access, and screening needs.
And with our research and development team’s ingenuity, we have been able to find these solutions in the unlikeliest of places, using parking technology — itself industry-leading within the urban mobility market — to continue delivering value to our clients by addressing other issues they face, including social distancing and facility access.
We’ve done this by applying our know-how to virtualize the customer experience our clients offer to users of their facilities. By providing remote customer support, AI-driven self-serve functionality, biometrics-based access credentialing, and touchless on-site technology, we are streamlining how drivers get into and move through your facilities with a view to keeping everyone safe without adversely affecting the quality of the services we all rely on.
Photo Source: Findlaw blog (2021) Should Sidewalk Robots Have Legal Rights as Pedestrians?
About the Author:
Bern Grush is drafting ISO 4448 to prepare for the arrival of sidewalk robots, innovating incentive systems to help transit recover post-COVID (“Rideal”), and writing another book, tentatively: “Robots in Cities and Towns: A Guidebook”. He is co-author of The End of Driving: Transportation Systems and Public Policy Planning for Autonomous Vehicles (Elsevier, 2018) and the patent-holder for the fully-autonomous GPS-based parking meter, “Skymeter”. Bern is with Harmonize Mobility Inc.
- Henao, A. and Marshall, W. (2019) The impact of ride hailing on parking (and vice versa)
- Grush, B., (2021a) The Last Block: Towards an international standard to regulate and manage sidewalk robots. https://citm.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Harmonize-Mobility_The-Last-Block_21.02.01.pdf
3. Grush, ibid