Autonomous Vehicles, New Mobility & the Built Environment Robots

Get Ready for Sidewalk Robots – Challenges and Opportunities

“We are not ready for sidewalk robots,” exclaims Harmonize Mobility”s Bern Grush in the above interview. Grush is qualified to make this statement as he is leading the efforts to standardize the curb interface for autonomous vehicles. It is important to note that in the context of the above conversation, autonomous vehicle means everything from pet-size delivery robots to robotaxis and robovans transporting people and/or goods.

Grush explains that the purpose of ISO/4448 is about enabling regulation and governance. As Grush says,

“The standard allows the city to express what the rules are.” It allows the provider to understand the rules.”

Human Machine Interactions and Manners #

He points out that humans walk everywhere on sidewalks, but robots will follow rules. It is important that blend into the local environment. To do this, robots will need to understand and obey the rules of the road. It will also be necessary to coordinate robots with a central management system to provide what might be considered robot manners (e.g. allowing a human the right-of-way).

It will require some knowledge by the general public about what to expect and how to interact with these new occupants of the sidewalks. In this light, in a recent Smart Driving Cars Podcast (YouTube), American University Professor Selika Talbot advocates for programs to educate youth about autonomous vehicles.

New Opportunities for Cities and People #

Robots might not always be owned by delivery companies. They could be owned by a strip mall, business district, individual businesses, or individuals. Eventually, delivery robots will start to impact the built environment.

Grush argues that delivery robots will not take away jobs, as it is really about transforming commerce. It ould be a way to rejuvenate business districts while improving accessibility and creating better urban spaces. Of course, there are potential downsides, as well, if cities don’t anticipate the opportunities and challenges.

Santa Monica is taking the first step to understanding the impact of the zero-emissions delivery by making its 1 square mile core a Zero-Emissions Delivery Zone. Further east in Tempe, Arizona, Culdesac is a car-free, walkable community built around “on-demand”. According to Public Square, “sidewalk delivery robots replace the need for trucks on site.”

With one robot delivery passing the 1 millionth delivery in early January, Grush recommends that cities get ready. He anticipates the widespread rollout of sidewalk delivery robots to occur faster than autonomous vehicles that carry passengers.

Interview Highlights #

00:01:34 Autonomous delivery vehicles have fewer boundaries, are less expensive to put together, and the perceived threat to jobs is lower than autonomous vehicles. Grush believes they will be here before autonomous vehicles that carry passengers.

00:04:18 It’s here. And we’re not paying enough attention to it. There are risks that we shove the pedestrians off the sidewalks.

00:05:18Opportunity for Business Improvement Areas. There is a possible win-win-win, whereby low-cost delivery from robotic delivery vehicles could help local merchants compete against the warehouses. The advent of these small vehicles could force accessibility improvements to sidewalks (e.g. curb cuts where there are none, wider sidewalks) and general improvement in urban livability as these vehicles will be inherently electric without a tailpipe.

It could be implemented in Business Improvement Areas that coincide with Operational Design Domains. But there could be downsides, if the robots are all over the place and make it difficult to traverse sidewalks or if trees need to be removed to make way for these drone delivery vehicles.

00:08:30What opportunities are there to improve accessibility, whether through curb cuts or leveling out the sidewalks?

00:11:12City Revenue Opportunities – Is there an opportunity to generate revenue to pay for those infrastructure changes. There needs to be a will and a method to pay for the use of the curb and road. Grush points out that the inherent data will make it possible to charge for use. It will require permission from the cities to drive through the right-of-way by time, weight, and place.

00:14:26Keeping Track – Operators have an incentive to know where their mobile assets are at all times. One of the things in the standard is that robots cannot wait in the curb cut. Otherwise, they might block a human on the curb cut.

00:18:29Communications Key – A signaling or a communications system, if you will is needed and is part of the ISO standards effort. The bandwidth demands could become quite significant, given that you have, say four cameras on each one. Granted, these feeds might not transmit until required because it is in a situation where it needs teleoperator assistance. A key thing is a teleoperator working in the back that may be monitoring 4, 10, or 20 robots.

00:21:21Attentive Teleoperators a Must -Bern provides a real-life example of how a person in a wheelchair was blocked because of an inattentive teleoperator.

00:23:14Ground Traffic Control Is Necessary – The communications challenge and the importance of standardization become even more critical when considering that there will be delivery robots from multiple entities plying the sidewalks and curbs. Bern provides examples of real-world examples of sidewalks, robots, and obstructions. He also talks about the rules for robots, such as, “Robots can [generally] only travel clockwise,” so they don’t oppose each other and inadvertently block pathways. The city sets up the rules and the exceptions on a block-by-block basis. For instance, it may allow a robot to travel counter-clockwise to expedite delivery and prevent a long detour around a block.

00:28:01What Cities Are Ready – What cities are prepared for the robot deliveries? Are people going to be tripping over them? Grush has photos that illustrate the potential issues, both for inattentive people as well as those who cannot see. Grush says this is also an impetus for delivery vehicles to communicate via various sounds (four) and, potentially, lights (red, amber, green). Ideally, the sounds it makes would emulate how it might feel if it had feelings. For instance, if a pedestrian is too close, then it might have a whimper versus a bark, according to Grush. The standard will create a language. Grush is working with an audio engineer to describe the sounds that will be in the standard. ”

00:35:14Robot-to-Robot Manners – Other robots will be obligated to report misbehavior or a failure of other robots. At a basic level, having QR codes on different on at least two parts of the robot

00:37:35Human-Machine Communications – When inoperable the robot delivery vehicles will be able to simply communicate via their sounds and lights that they need help.

00:39:19Machine-to-Machine Communications – Part 3 of the 11 part standard is about communications. It is more of a reference to other communications’ standards.

00:40:18Privacy – One of the elements is that the “robots shall not take away any additional privacy.” Grush gives the example of a merchant who might use a robot to surveil the competition. The standard also says it cannot make you any less secure. Grush gives an example of how a robot might make a person less physically secure. His example is perhaps one reason why the insurance industry is taken an interest in the standard. The groups that are not taking an interest in standardization are the delivery companies developing the robot delivery systems.

Grush believes the opportunity may be for an independent company to manage the queuing process in a neutral way.

00:45:03Retail to the Home – In one sense, the electric, autonomous delivery vehicles are extending the retail to the home. Grush explains that there are two standards, 5206, which is the parking standard, and the 4448. He says that these two standards together help the cities monetize parking and the sidewalks. It is up to the city to apply the standards as they see fit. He sees the implementation will be city-by-city.

00:47:20TANSTAAFL – Playing off of Donald Shoup’s book title, Grush invents the term, “the high cost of free robots.”

00:47:36Shared versus Personal Robots – The standard is neutral to the idea of personal delivery robots. Again, it is up to the local entities to determine the robot registration process. The municipality might require it to register with a certain Robot Management System, which would manage its path on the sidewalks, communicate to other robots, and settle payments for sidewalk/curb use.

00:49:56Reduced Vehicle Trips? From early reports, Grush is encouraged that autonomous delivery might tend to replace vehicle trips, as opposed to walking or biking trips.

00:51:28Obstacles – Grush gives an example of how temporary sidewalk obstructions could cause chaos for delivery robots. Grush indicates that these images are part of his next book. He points out that the right-sizing of delivery vehicles will remain a challenge. There is a place for these robots and places where they should not be and it is up to the cities to decide. The standard will help them.

00:59:02Danger, Will Robinson – These vehicles still need to interact with people. Robots that potentially 600 pounds and traveling at 12 miles per hour could present a danger to an unaware pedestrian.

01:03:50Harmonize Says It All – Harmonize Mobility will help cities create rules based on their particular needs. Harmonize maps out and help determine robot capacity block by block.  For successful operation, there needs to be a ground traffic control system of sorts to ensure the peaceful and efficient co-existence of the various robots.

01:10:48Legs Could Change Everything – What happens when the robots grow legs?

01:12:23Plan Now, Cities! – Cities need to start thinking about this today. Grush says cities like Orlando, Boston, and Budapest are advising on the standard. Accessibility issues are also being addressed.

Author Ken Pyle, Managing Editor

By Ken Pyle, Managing Editor

Ken Pyle is Marketing Director for the Broadband Forum. The mission of this 25+-year-old non-profit “is to unlock the potential for new markets and profitable revenue growth by leveraging new technologies and standards in the home, intelligent small business, and multi-user infrastructure of the broadband network.”

He is also co-founder of Viodi, LLC and Managing Editor of the Viodi View, a publication focused on the rural broadband ecosystem, autonomous vehicles, and electric aviation. He has edited and produced numerous multimedia projects for NTCA, US Telecom and Viodi. Pyle is the producer of Viodi’s Local Content Workshop, the Video Production Crash Course at NAB, as well as ViodiTV. He has been intimately involved in Viodi’s consulting projects and has created processes for clients to use for their PPV and VOD operations, as well authored reports on the independent telco market.

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