State Laws Pave the Way for AI Delivery Bots, But Bots Still Need Counsel

One of the emerging battlegrounds of artificial intelligence technology is personal delivery bots, small robots that autonomously deliver orders from stores to front doors. Amazon and FedEx are testing personal delivery devices (PDDs) in urban and suburban locations. Smaller companies like Starship Technology and Piaggio Fast Forward are also experimenting with PDDs on college campuses and as shopping assistants. Assisting these efforts are state laws governing PDDs. The most recent law, Pennsylvania Senate Bill 1199 highlights some of the strategies states are pursuing regarding PDDs and some of the problems these AI devices introduce.

The Pennsylvania law classifies a PDD as a “ground delivery device” that is manufactured for transporting cargo or goods, that is operated remotely or autonomously or both, and that weighs 550 pounds or less without cargo or goods. That’s a pretty heavy device; Washington’s state law limits the size of PDDs to 120 pounds. Pennsylvania permits PDDs to travel up to 12 miles per hour in pedestrian areas and 25 miles per hour on the street. That’s a pretty fast device, as only Florida allows PDDs to travel faster in pedestrian areas (15 mph) among the dozen states that have PDD laws. As a point of reference, most people have a walking speed of 3-4 mph. Organizations like the National Association of City Transportation Officials, the Teamsters, and pedestrian and biker advocacy groups have voiced numerous concerns about PDDs and the Pennsylvania law: negative effects on urban streets, elimination of jobs, pedestrian and biker safety, etc. Other state laws have prompted similar criticism.

For companies experimenting with PDDs and hoping to deploy them in the near future, these laws are very useful, giving them authorization and clear requirements in a number of states to test the robots and find suitable markets for early rollout. In most cases, the state laws pre-empt many likely avenues of local regulation, which could save PDD companies the costs of obtaining authorization for their devices on a town-by-town, city-by-city basis in those states.

At the same time, ignoring opposition in their initial operating sites sets those companies up to incur other costs when they respond to inevitable public backlash. PDD companies would be better served to use the state laws as an opening to meet with the municipalities where they plan to deploy the devices. In Pennsylvania, for example, Amazon and FedEx should go to their pilot program cities and publically indicate they plan to operate PDDs and to do so consistent with state law, but they also want to do so in a way that works best for those municipalities. Should PDDs be limited to speeds lower than 12 mph? Are there other restrictions (e.g., particular no-go areas, reduced speeds when human pedestrians are detected within 10 feet, etc.) that the municipalities and companies can agree to?

These state laws give PDD companies a strong negotiating position with local governments. Engaging with those governments from a position of strength will prevent cities and towns from prohibiting PDDs altogether, but might permit the municipalities to contribute to an emerging consensus of what PDD performance standards are acceptable. The companies whose PDDs first satisfy that consensus will have first-mover advantages, meaning it is in the best interests of all the companies currently working in this field to actively engage with the communities where they hope to deploy their AI bots.

Those companies will also be well-served to retain outside counsel that is familiar with both their PDD technology and working with local governments. An experienced attorney that is tech savvy and well-versed in navigating local politics will be invaluable to PDD companies as they develop an effective strategy to engage with municipalities and as they implement that strategy.

John Weaver
John Weaver

As an emerging technologies lawyer, John advises a wide range of companies – from startups to international corporations – on regulatory and legal issues unique to those technologies, including consumer protection requirements governing artificial intelligence, regulations governing drones, state legislation affecting self-driving cars, and the impact of autonomous devices and programs on user and employment agreements.

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