Roxo FedEx Bot

Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering authorizing personal delivery devices like Roxo the FedEx SameDay Bot.

THE ISSUE

The state Senate passed a bill June 30 that would regulate the use of “automated personal delivery” devices in Pennsylvania for the first time, Jordan Wolman reported earlier this month for The Caucus, an LNP Media Group watchdog publication. “Proponents of the technology say the electronic devices can reduce pollution and congestion for short-range deliveries,” Wolman explained. But there are plenty of concerns and questions about the use of robotlike devices, too. The bill is now in the state House transportation committee.

Innovation always has been a crucial part of the success of American capitalism. Our state and nation must rely on innovation more than ever when emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic into a radically altered economic landscape.

But that innovation shouldn’t be rushed or come at the expense of safety.

We do not understand why 31 state senators were so quick to pass Senate Bill 1199, of which Mount Joy Republican state Sen. Ryan Aument is the prime sponsor.

There might be good economic intentions within Aument’s legislation, but the vetting and discussion of a decision of this technological magnitude was disappointingly lacking.

Some background:

The Caucus’ Wolman paints this vision of personal delivery devices: “There’s a futuristic-looking robot rolling up the driveway. It has six wheels and looks a little like a Mars rover. It just navigated down the sidewalk ... and when it gets to your door it lets you know — your package has arrived.”

That’s quite a technological leap. Aument says the robot deliveries could be for groceries, takeout food, medications, essential health care supplies, auto parts and more. All without need for human contact.

The devices would have a delivery radius of about 3 miles and their operators would have to remain within 30 feet until at least 2022, at which point operational support could become entirely remote.

Aument adds that the devices would have zero emissions and contribute to reducing congestion and pollution on our roads.

All fine in theory.

But theory isn’t sufficient to take a vote on passage, as the state Senate did. There wasn’t even a public hearing, The Caucus noted.

There were plenty of safety concerns expressed.

Most other states that have legalized delivery robots have placed weight limits of between 50 and 90 pounds on the devices. Aument’s bill calls for a weight limit of 550 pounds, not including cargo.

That’s a huge difference. And one that should have received great scrutiny before any vote.

Aument says the delivery devices would use “a combination of sophisticated machine learning, artificial intelligence and sensors to travel on sidewalks and some public roadways.” They would be “capable of handling steep slopes and curbs, steps.”

There must be reasons other states haven’t yet approved quarter-ton self-operating robots that can handle curbs and steep slopes. Shouldn’t state lawmakers get to see some tests of these machines? And hear from some experts?

There must be reasons other states haven’t yet approved quarter-ton self-operating robots that can handle curbs and steep slopes. Shouldn’t state lawmakers get to see some tests of these machines? And hear from some experts?

And don’t these robots have the potential to widen the gap between lower-income neighborhoods and wealthier ones? If a poor neighborhood’s sidewalks aren’t in good shape — or if that neighborhood has no sidewalks —  will delivery costs be higher for residents because robots won’t be able to operate there?

We aren’t the only ones with concerns.

“We did not get a chance to ask or answer essential questions like: How equipped are sidewalks to handle the wear and tear of 550-pound robots over time?” state Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Chester County, told The Caucus. “How would these robots interact on tight sidewalks with other people, especially people with disabilities? What happens when a robot causes an accident?”

Those are all important questions with huge public safety ramifications.

Also weighing in was the Insurance Federation of PA, which submitted a letter of opposition: “The bill doesn’t provide for much safety,” it wrote. “There is no inspection requirement. The braking standards are dangerously weak: Certification from a third party that the Delivery Device can come to a stop on a dry, level and clean thoroughfare doesn’t mean much on a hill in inclement weather.”

The Teamsters Union, the Pennsylvania Municipal League and the Pennsylvania Association of Township Commissioners also have voiced opposition to the legislation, The Caucus article noted. It added, “Other controversial provisions of the bill as written are related to liability insurance and local officials’ inability to restrict the devices in their municipalities.”

We are reminded of how long the testing process has been in the U.S. for self-driving cars. So many factors must be taken into account, with safety always being paramount.

Aument’s memorandum introducing the bill is dated May 8. But according to the state website, it wasn’t introduced to the state Senate transportation committee until June 15. It was passed by the state Senate on June 30.

Do the math. We’d like to know why this bill got fast-tracked.

Especially when, as state Sen. Maria Collett, D-Bucks County, complained, Republicans in Harrisburg have “voted against and failed to bring up legislation” that would ensure worker protections throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, “so, the argument that this bill is urgent because they suddenly find themselves invested in worker safety is less than persuasive.”

Worker safety should be a top priority in Harrisburg, especially during this health crisis.

And the public’s safety should be the top priority when debating bills as seismic as allowing 550-pound delivery robots onto our streets and sidewalks. The introduction of major technological advances must be handled with special care, because it can be hard to put the genie back in the bottle.

“At no other time in our nation’s history has it become more important for local, state, and federal governments to work together to embrace technological innovations,” Aument wrote.

He’s correct. And his legislation is worthy of continued discussion as it moves to the state House. But that chamber must do what the Senate did not and give this bill a rigorous vetting and public hearing.