SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal aiming to pave the way for new, autonomous delivery robots to ply the sidewalks and roadways of Utah cities earned the unanimous support of a state legislative committee on Friday.
And the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Stewart Barlow, R-Fruit Heights, sweetened the deal by offering his personal guarantee that the new devices would never run down a pedestrian while hustling sandwiches or groceries to residents in need.
Barlow’s proposal, HB277, establishes some base rules for use of delivery robots, including allowing for operation on sidewalks and at the edges of roadways, limiting speeds to 10 mph in areas shared by pedestrians and 20 mph on roadsm and requiring operators to carry a minimum of $100,000 in liability insurance should autonomous operations experience a glitch.
Numerous companies are developing the vehicles, which are typically battery-powered and feature onboard sensor technology like video cameras, radar and Lidar (a laser-based detection system) coupled with machine learning and artificial intelligence software to operate without human intervention. Utah lawmakers recently had the opportunity to see a demo held at the Capitol of the Roxo vehicle developed by package delivery giant FedEx.
FedEx government relations manager Michael Yadon said the explosive growth of e-commerce was helping drive the demand for zero emissions, automated technology like delivery robots.
“(With) this last mile concept and the exponential growth of e-commerce, we’re looking for ways to continue to serve, as are many people in the business, the growing world of evolving technology,” Yadon said. “We certainly believe HB277 allows for emerging technology to also be introduced in this very progressive technological state.”
The personal delivery vehicle proposal follows other recent rule changes adopted by legislators that have helped open doors for the use of emerging autonomous vehicle technology. Utah lawmakers have previously signed off on new allowances for test operations of autonomous passenger vehicles on Utah roadways as well as the testing of software that coordinates platooning of freight trucks.
Barlow’s proposal, should it be adopted, establishes statewide rules for delivery bots but also allows for local governments to adopt their own rules, letting them to “reasonably regulate the operation of personal delivery devices on a highway or pedestrian area” according to the bill language.
Layton City Attorney Gary Crane, who also represents Layton as part of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, lauded the Legislature for its work to stay ahead of the curve on emerging technologies.
“Normally, cities and states are little bit behind (new technology) but here we’re getting out ahead,” Crane said. “The cities see this as a really good thing ... we’re excited about the tech.”
One member of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, noted his concerns about potential conflicts between pedestrians and the autonomous delivery vehicles and asked a point-blank question of Barlow.
“Can you give us assurance that Roxo will never collide with a pedestrian on a sidewalk,” Nelson asked.
“I think I can,” Barlow responded. “This technology is more advanced than what you’ll find in autonomous cars.”
HB277 now moves to the full House for further consideration.