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The Robots are Coming, and We’ve Got a Standard for That

Delivery robots are just around the corner, ready to deliver food and parcels to your door. The pandemic has pushed demand for these robots higher than ever – and now standards are being developed to address this burgeoning industry.

International standards may sound dry and boring, but the sight of e-scooters piled haphazardly on our sidewalks, roads, and in our canals should remind us that they are essential for smooth functioning, clean, and enjoyable spaces. Ideally standards help industry, consumers, and the general public. Harmonize Mobility has been spearheading a group of cities, companies, and advocacy groups aiming to work toward ISO/4448 which is “an international standard to ensure delivery robots are safe, commercially and operationally viable, and legally manageable.”

In order to provide a service at any scale companies need to know the operating context they’ll be operating in. For delivery robots that would include issues such as curbside management, speed limits, time of day operation limits, and more. Because delivery robots are a form of transport that operates in standard vehicle areas, such as roads and parking lots, and pedestrian areas, like sidewalks and even within buildings, there further areas that are in need of standardization.

Safety is an obvious concern. Things such as vehicle speed, weight, and eHMI (communication such as lights and sounds) are all relevant to safety when autonomous vehicles are operating within pedestrian areas. How, for example, will such robots navigate around people? As Lui Greco, from a Canadian advocacy organization for the blind put it: “We feel that sidewalks are already busy enough with obstacles like trees, planers and restaurant patios, and somehow people who are blind have to try and navigate that environment in a way that doesn’t compromise their safety, independence or dignity.” Adding to these complex environments a self-powered, self-driving delivery robot must be done in such a way that it does not decrease mobility or accessibility for people, and especially the most vulnerable pedestrians.

These efforts have not yet attracted the companies making the robots, such as Starship or Hugo. As momentum picks up it is expected that there will be a move toward synchronization across the stakeholders involved, from the companies to governments and advocacy groups. The VP of Marketing at Starship, referring to the UK, said that they “believe that a standarised definition of Personal Delivery Devices, along with a few select universal requirements, should be established at a national level, with the operating consent devolved to local governments to tailor the operation to the local environment.”

Personal comment:

It is often pointed out that technology develops more quickly than the regulation or policy that is put in place to manage it. That is true. For those implementing, creating, and selling the technology this is perceived as a frustrating hindrance. It is a hindrance. The whole point of a regulation is to hinder certain activities or features that are deemed unacceptable for safety, environmental, social, or other reasons. Frustrating and cumbersome as the processes of developing and implementing a standard are, they generally lead to a win-win for industry and society. The GSM standard in mobile phones, for example, allows for international roaming as well as for phone producers to sell to a world-wide audience.

Delivery robots hold significant promise: quick, cheap, efficient, delivery of goods. They will need good standardization in order to realize these benefits. If done well we may see these small autonomous vehicles about our cities in the near future and be able to address some of the environmental, city planning, and societal wide challenges we are currently facing.  

Written by Joshua Bronson,
RISE Mobility & Systems (Människa-autonomi)