Philbrick: Robots rolling by transportation equity concerns
A man and delivery robot waiting at a pedestrian crossing in Redwood City, California. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A black-and-white, six-wheeled little robot rolls by you on the sidewalk. A pole protrudes from its back, sporting a neon-orange flag. What is it carrying? What on earth is it doing on the sidewalk?

In the U.S., wheeled delivery robots and drones can and are being used to reach the 4.5 million people who live in food deserts and lack easy access to the fresh fruit and nutritious food many of us take for granted at our neighborhood grocery stores. Farther abroad, scientists from the University of Glasgow tested a delivery robot in rural southern India that carries water to people living in remote villages; a critical life-saving measure since more than half of India’s population lacks access to a home tap water source.

In Silicon Valley, arguably the nation’s heart of technological innovation, many of us are familiar with emerging technologies. Tech startups in recent years have made once-cutting edge innovations like bike share, ride-hail services, electric scooters, autonomous vehicles, and, yes, robots, increasingly commonplace even as they continue to transform the way we live and move.

These technologies increase efficiency, safety, convenience and in most cases sustainability. For example, autonomous vehicles may improve accessibility and convenience for those with physical disabilities and neurodivergence, and have the potential to reduce some 38,000 fatalities that occur from traffic collisions every year in the United States, of which human error may contribute to 94%.

But how do we ensure these technologies empower people and help the planet—and not, say, block the path of a wheelchair on a sidewalk or only deliver groceries to those who already have other means to get to the store?

One company based in San Francisco, Starship, has employed delivery robots on dozens of college campuses across the country, and similar robots have traveled over millions of miles in countries worldwide. In fact, these robots from Starship, Kiwibot, Nuro and several other startups have already completed millions of autonomous deliveries safely—many with low or even zero emissions.

The global autonomous last mile delivery market—the last leg of a journey from transportation hub to final destination—is expected to grow from approximately $11 billion in 2021 to over $75 billion by 2030, and some communities and lawmakers are worried about the effects of having autonomous delivery vehicles (robots) on their sidewalks on a regular basis.

But research analyzing community perspectives and reactions toward sidewalk delivery robots in San Jose has shown people generally react with curiosity or mild confusion when encountering such a robot—possibly due to the lack of traditional non-verbal cues such as body language and eye contact used to communicate with other pedestrians or cyclists. This research also reported zero collisions between the robots and pedestrians and despite any initial confusion, more than 70% of those surveyed said they would consider using robot delivery services—saving time and money.

Becoming more and more comfortable with autonomous machines in our everyday lives necessitates looking at their potential through a variety of lenses. Beyond delivering food, some robots are on the frontlines in hospitals: disinfecting rooms and delivering medicine and supplies. For example, robots at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. deliver approximately 80,000 medications to care providers every year—saving countless lives in an efficient, replicable way.

Moving forward, our industry can continue to examine all potentials for emerging mobility technology and seize every opportunity to use these innovations for good, many of which can benefit our most vulnerable populations, like seniors and individuals living in food deserts.

San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues.

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