- a pennsylvania state law has gone into effect giving delivery drones the right to operate on city sidewalks, and it also classified them as pedestrians.
- this makes pennsylvania the latest in a string of states, plus washington, d.c., to let these delivery robots maneuver around towns.
- not everyone is a fan of these changes, including the national association of city transportation officials, which is calling for a "comprehensive overhaul" of city streets to make automation work.
the legal rights of robots have expanded, at least in pennsylvania. there, autonomous delivery drones will be allowed to maneuver on sidewalks and paths as well as roadways and will now technically be considered "pedestrians." it's the latest change in the evolving relationship between autonomous vehicles and humans.
in pennsylvania, the legal limits for autonomous delivery robots mean a maximum top speed of 12 mph in a pedestrian area, 25 mph on a roadway, and a load limit of 550 pounds. the pennsylvania law was sponsored by state senator ryan aument and went into effect in january. aument did not respond to car and driver's request for comment.
counting pennsylvania, there are now a dozen states, including virginia, idaho, florida, wisconsin and washington, d.c., according to axios, where it is legal for personal delivery robots to share the streets with people.
the benefits of autonomous delivery robots include a reduction in the need for large, potentially emission-heavy trucks to move in crowded cities and a reduction in the number of delivery drivers required to get the stuff people order online to them quickly. of course, that last item is one reason groups like the teamsters have come out against delivery robots. the national association of city transportation officials has also issued a blueprint for autonomous urbanism that calls for more thought about adding self-driving robots to our streets. "automation without a comprehensive overhaul of how our streets are designed, allocated, and shared will not result in substantive safety, sustainability, or equity gains," the report said. tech-friendly san francisco even banned most sidewalk robots back in 2017.
it takes a lot of artificial intelligence to get robots to safely navigate s crowded street. the tamura lab at tohoku university in japan has collected a list of factors autonomous vehicles should consider when interacting with pedestrians. that means avoiding "smartphone zombies," or people who are walking while looking at a device instead of where they're going, as well as using something called the "social force model" to try to understand a human's intention about when they might change direction. in 2017, engineers at mit created an autonomous robot that used socially aware navigation, to teach the av to basically follow "the same rules as everyone else" regarding personal space and expectations about where to walk, one of the researchers said in a statement at the time. it's not going to be easy to keep these knee-high robots moving alongside human pedestrians.