Almost a year ago, Bern Grush warned that cities weren’t ready for sidewalk robots. This was reinforced a few months ago in a post on a neighborhood social media site where some pretty funny comments were made about an unexpected little robot plying the streets. In this neighborhood, like many, the sidewalk infrastructure is decrepit or non-existent so these little delivery vehicles have to roam the streets.
In the above interview, Bern provides an update on the ISO standardization efforts for sidewalk robots that he is leading. He also provides an overview of his new organization, the Urban Robotics Foundation. Don’t let the name deceive you, the URF is about helping the people who will be sharing their roads, lanes, and sidewalks with the autonomous carriers of bodies and boxes.
Interview Highlights #
01:32 – Grush discusses the recent kerfuffle in Toronto surrounding delivery robots and the challenge of getting everyone on the same page. Robots can inadvertently block the roads for people who are blind or in wheelchairs.
07:38 – Regulations are necessary, but there need to be standards associated with regulations.
10:28 – We need a common set of rules so humans understand the behavior of the robots. This is especially critical for those who have issues with sight or hearing.
12:46 – Grush warns that orchestration, traffic management, and behavioral systems are must-haves.
14:29 – Will the introduction of autonomous mobility be a forcing function to improve the pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure for humans? This brings up a number of other questions, such as how much should sidewalks be widened to accommodate people and robots? Alternatively, should there just be one space for all traffic as there are arguments that such an approach might actually improve safety?
16:57 – This may be analogous to the way telecom networks used to be built as single-purpose networks (e.g. CATV, telephone, data), as opposed to today’s IP networks that carry all communication traffic. Grush compares it to rail and air traffic. Air traffic has different payloads (freight and passengers) and different types of vehicles coexisting thanks to a robust air traffic management system. The municipal level will also need traffic control for autonomous vehicles, Grush argues.
25:20 – Since the number of public drop-off slots is potentially limited, what is the best way to allocate them? Would it be through some sort of real-time, online auction?
33:10 – Grush explains that his priority is the pedestrians. Standards are as simple as red lights, which are universally recognized wherever one is.
38:49 – Grush warns that we aren’t ready for a near future where thousands of different robot vehicles from different entities are plying the streets, lanes, and sidewalks of our communities.
39:39 – Grush talks about the purpose of the Urban Robotics Foundation and its membership, which includes members ranging from cities and robot delivery vehicle service providers. Beneficiaries of their ISO 4448 standardization efforts include those involved in governance, planners, robot makers, logistics, and, most of all, pedestrians and active users of the road, lane, and sidewalk infrastructure.
45:54 – The focus turns to a real-world example of a robot unable to do its job because of the lack of standardization. The challenge is to create standards and associated rules without crushing innovation. That innovation could be new devices that add utility, such as autonomous snowblowers.
50:53 – Grush suggests that social agent robots could revitalize small downtowns.
52:31 – Surveillance and privacy are dealt with in ISO 4448. It is up to the jurisdiction whether at the municipal, state, or national level to legislate.
56:24 – Another potential use case is a shared autonomous pick-up or flatbed truck that a neighborhood might own so that individuals could use it only when they needed it.
57:46 – Grush points to Project BB as an example of a special-purpose autonomous robotic vehicle that is taking on a task that is incredibly time-consuming for a human; picking up cigarette butts. He indicates that a gum-cleaning robot is also in development. He points out that one of gu’s ingredients is plastic (polyethylene).