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An Emerging Issue: Robot Delivery Devices May Be Coming to a Neighborhood Near You


September 2, 2021  by  Nick Fisher
Category:  Streets and Sidewalks Cycling and Walking Guest Author

An Emerging Issue: Robot Delivery Devices May Be Coming to a Neighborhood Near You

Residents in Washington will soon have new delivery options that will change who, or what, is bringing them their packages. Firms such as Amazon and Doordash have begun to transition towards automated delivery processes. This includes launching fleets of personal delivery devices (PDDs), or autonomous devices, designed to carry and deliver food, packages, and other products to their respective customers.

Most people probably believe that PDDs are a futuristic concept that won’t be operational for several years, but you may be surprised to learn that they have already been deployed in several communities across the country including urban hubs, such as the California Bay Area, or college campuses, such as Arizona State University.  Closer to home, they have been in “test mode” in at least two Snohomish County cities over the past two years. During that time, companies have been testing these devices and gathering data to improve their operations and mitigate any shortcomings in this emerging technology.

The bottom line is you may see PDDs operating in your community sooner than you think. 

What Is a Personal Delivery Device?

A personal delivery device (PDDs) is an automated or remotely piloted device that contains storage space for packages, food, and other delivery items.

These devices are intended to help businesses cut costs on deliveries, reduce delivery vehicle congestion, and cut greenhouse gas emissions from delivery vehicles. Businesses and consumers will expect to benefit from reduced delivery times, improved delivery and freight efficiency, and an overall increase in productivity for delivery companies.

Despite their potential benefits, the technology used in PDDs, like that used in automated driving, is still mostly experimental. PDDs may also present some potential safety risks, despite limits under current state law.

Changes to Washington Law in 2019

In April 2019, the Washington State Legislature passed HB 1325 to regulate the use of PDDs. The bill addressed where PDDs could operate as well as safety requirements.

Where can PDDs operate?

  • PDDs are allowed to operate in pedestrian areas such as sidewalks, crosswalks, and shoulders.
  • Vehicles must treat PDDs as pedestrians and allow them the provided right-of-way in their area of operation.

What are the safety requirements for PDDs?

  • PDDs must operate following all pedestrian safety laws.
  • PDDs must follow a 6-mile-per-hour speed limit and be equipped with a braking system.
  • A human operator must be able to remotely override and pilot an automated PDD, if necessary.
  • PDDs must have visible lights if operating during the evening.
  • PDDs are not permitted to carry hazardous materials.

In addition, PDD operators must renew an annual self-certification and license through the Washington Department of Licensing. PDD operators must also have an insurance policy covering damages up to at least $100,000. Operators are responsible for generating accident reports and are subject to fines in the case of personal or property damage(s).

Local Regulation of PDDs

Only a few Washington State communities have taken steps to establish local regulation on PDDs with the intent to promote innovative delivery while also mitigating any negative impacts. Some cities, such as Everett, have recently modified their development regulations to allow PDD use, with plans to refine their procedures as the understanding of PDD impact on local neighborhoods evolves.

Other communities outside of Washington have taken additional steps in their regulations. Some have added data sharing requirements to allow cities to monitor PDD safety indicators, such as collision or theft data. This data can be used to adapt regulation and permitting processes to improve PDD safety.

Local governments need to consider how best to integrate this cutting-edge technology into their communities. Current laws prevent any interference for equipment, such as fire hydrants and crosswalks, but PDDs and their operators also need:

  • established right-of-way or areas of operation,
  • requisite municipal or state accident filing procedures, and
  • established speed limits, and weight and product limits.

An emerging issue for local governments to track is the robot delivery ‘dispensers’ or ‘hives’ that are starting to be used by operators to store and deploy PDDs. The size, use, storage, and locational elements of these hives may present zoning challenges for jurisdictions in which these are located. Traditionally, land used primarily for storage would be viewed and zoned as a warehouse or distribution center use, but PDDs are relatively small (for example, 15-20 feet in length, 10 feet in width, and 8-10 feet in height), and the PDD dispenser facilities need to be located close to their customer base, which is predominantly in residential areas.

Amazon_robot_storage

Photo of an Amazon hive. Photo credit to Steve Butler. 

Currently permitted hives in cities such as Everett are 8-10 feet in height and cover approximately 150 square feet in area. The hives are also used as docking and charging stations  for PDDs.  Jurisdictions will need to consider where these dispensers should be located to best fit into their community and how to revise their current codes to maximize accessibility and reduce any potential negative community impacts. Some communities treat these PDD dispenser facilities as “accessory uses” to the primary use of a site, however, without requiring a zoning code change.  For example, the City of Everett treats PDD dispenser facilities as “accessory outside storage."

robot_storage

Photo of a wheeled hive. Photo credit to Steve Butler. 

While the PDD dispensers depicted in the photos above are relatively benign in appearance (although opinions may differ on this point), local governments may also want to consider applying some type of architectural design standards to ensure that dispensers fit in with surrounding buildings, especially if dispensers become more common and start appearing in residential neighborhoods. In addition, there is the zoning issue of whether a dispenser’s facade treatment will trigger local sign regulations. Standards related to hours of operation, dispenser-related noise, and a dispenser’s use of the primary uses’ required parking may also be needed, although it is too early to know at this time. 

PDDs and their storage facilities could become a more complex issue as this new technology spreads into residential neighborhoods where there is the greatest demand, so don't be too surprised if they show up in your community in the future.

Sample Regulations

Here are some examples of local government regulation of PDDs.

  • San Francisco (CA) Municipal Code Sec. 794 – In addition to imposing standard permitting and safety requirements, this section requires PDDs to offer data sharing capabilities, and there is a public hearing process requirement for approval of a PDD permit.
  • Madison (WI) Municipal Code Sec. 12.753 – Limits operation of PDDs on sidewalks and crosswalks to pre-determined delivery routes.
  • District of Columbia Law 22-137 – Establishes requirements for beginning a PDD pilot program, including reporting and permitting processes. Presents a model for required data sharing with local government agencies.
The author wants to thank the following individuals for their assistance with this blog post: Yorik Stevens-Wajda, Planning Director, City of Everett; Ashley Winchell, Community Planning Manager, City of Lynnwood; and Steve Butler, Planning & Policy Manager, MRSC.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Nick Fisher

Nick Fisher joined MRSC in June of 2021 as a Policy Intern. He is working towards his Master's in Public Policy at University of California San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, specializing in Environmental Policy and Program Design and Evaluation.

Nick's previous experience includes internships with the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Riverside Public Utilities, and the City of Del Mar. He has worked in climate action, energy, sustainability, and public affairs.

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