The company Marble test-drives its food delivery robots at a little park near its offices in Potrero Hill. The company’s would-be food deliverer of the future is not fancy. The robot is basically an oversized cooler stuck on top of an electric wheelchair frame. It looks like some bulky droid you would see sliding along in the background an old "Star Wars" movie. The roving robot can hold a couple of bags of food, and it navigates with a few sensors and cameras.
Marble is one of several companies developing robots to deliver food. If these companies get their way, fleets of their bots could soon be rolling around urban sidewalks, carrying food once delivered by a human hand. Robots could provide a cheaper, quicker way to get customers food; but this vision has raised concerns about sidewalk safety, job loss and the societal impacts of using robots to increase the speed and ease of consuming goods and services. In San Francisco, one supervisor, Norman Yee, wants to stop the delivery robots from using the city’s sidewalks.
Matthew Delaney is CEO of Marble. He occasionally takes the robots on a test drive in the park, where they're a big hit with the kids who play there. Not that long ago, Delaney could have been one of those excited kids. Back in middle school, he built an automatic feeder for his family’s fish. That way humans wouldn’t have to feed them.
“The thought never left me,” Delaney said. “We can create these incredible tools and machines and they can do meaningful work for people, and we don't have to do the boring tasks that we don’t want to do.”
Marble and competitors like Starship Technologies are trying to automate what is known in delivery lingo as the "last mile.” It’s the final leg of delivery, where a product is brought to a customer. It is costly and requires a lot of delivery workers. Automating this final step could save companies money, but it could also cost jobs.
Job loss is one concern San Francisco Supervisor Norman Yee has with the delivery robots. But his primary issue is pedestrian safety. What if the robots block pedestrians? How would the city enforce where they go or how fast?
Yee does not want San Francisco to be a test subject for unproved technology. “Why should they test it here and why should we be the guinea pigs?” Yee asked. “Test it somewhere else, make it safe.”
Yee decided the robots are impossible to regulate, so he has drafted legislation to ban them from public sidewalks altogether, just like bikes and skateboards. He said he wanted to be proactive, unlike what happened in the city with Lyft and Uber. Their drivers flooded the streets, and now Yee said the city and state are trying to regulate something customers are already attached to.
“What I have seen with innovation and technology is that we let things happen and all the sudden it is irreversible,” Yee said. “The industry gets developed and all the sudden it seems like they have a lot of spare money to lobby policymakers.”
Delaney said that banning the robots altogether is reactionary. He said he is not trying to do the “standard move,” where a tech company rushes something out and hopes it becomes too big to be hampered by regulation. He said the company is “committed to building something that is good for everyone.”
Marble is not waiting around for city regulations. It is already making test deliveries on San Francisco sidewalks. For Delaney, San Francisco is a city to try out new things.
“If you want to see what the future is like, come to San Francisco,” Delaney said. “A lot of the new amazing things are just kind of happening out here. There are, of course, pros and cons to how these things are rolled out. The beacon of innovation is this whole area of the world.”
If Yee’s legislation passes, delivery robots will not keep rolling in San Francisco. But it is a different story down the peninsula in Redwood City, which isn’t opposed to being a test subject for delivery robots. Marble’s competitor, Starship Technologies, has worked with the city and a couple of states to develop regulations that allow their robots to roam the sidewalks.