Austin may test delivery robots in the future

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Photo Credit: Melanie Westfall | Daily Texan Staff

Austin may have robots rolling down its sidewalks delivering food in the near future.

According to Austin Transportation Department spokeswoman Marissa Monroy, Austin is actively seeking delivery robots to trial in the city.

“We’ve definitely seen a growing trend … throughout the country,” Monroy said. “And we know that Austin, being the innovative community that it is, we definitely are looking for all options when it comes to transporting not just people but goods and services.”

On Aug. 10 Austin City Council passed a resolution allowing the Transportation Department to initiate one or more two-year pilot programs, aimed at relieving traffic congestion by reducing delivery vehicles on the road, to test out delivery bots. The bots may deliver restaurant food, packages, groceries and other items to people around the city.

The resolution states the “personal delivery robotic devices” can be autonomous or human-controlled if needed. They must only use sidewalks, crosswalks and pedestrian pathways to avoid interfering with traffic. They can also weigh up to 300 pounds, must not exceed 10 miles per hour and must yield to pedestrians.

A pilot program would partner a private technology provider with the city, and Monroy said one or more companies may be approved. Transportation Department director Robert Spillar said departments can now evaluate tech companies’ proposals of bot plans.

“The purpose of making a call in terms of a call for information, if you will, is to make sure the larger industry is aware that Austin is interested in these technologies,” said Spillar during the Council’s meeting on Aug. 10.

Cities such as San Francisco and Washington D.C. already use delivery bots.

Art history sophomore Anneka High said she orders from Amazon Prime, Favor and occasionally Uber Eats, but noted that the rise of delivery services may discourage people from going out and buying from local restaurants and stores.

“It’ll definitely be more convenient, but it definitely takes away personability,” High said.

Public health sophomore Camille Murray said the bots would not greatly threaten students’ delivery jobs in companies such as Favor, which often uses bicyclists, because people would still be faster than a bot.

“I don’t think the development of these (robots) would put Favor out of business,” Murray said. “There’s something about the speed and, regardless, it’s probably going to still be cheaper to use people than the bots.”

Graduate student Litan Li said people may steal goods in autonomous bots if they are not supervised.

“I don’t think they’re very reliable,” Li said. “They can get messed with, and there’s nobody there to protect it. You can’t mess with a person.”

One company, Starship Technologies, had already expressed interest in helping the city after it visited South By Southwest this year, and when it demonstrated its six-wheeled bots in Austin’s northeast-central neighborhood of Mueller in July.