The Luddites Are Back Again

Written by: 
Aubrey Freedman

What would you say if someone figured out a way to reduce congestion by taking vans off the roads, reduce pollution, increase convenience, and reduce costs while helping the elderly and disabled by delivering groceries and meals to their doors?  Maybe a gesture of gratitude or a pat on the back for making life better for more people?  No, here in San Francisco in the heart of the tech capital of the world, not only is such technology not being welcomed with open arms—one member of the Board of Supervisors has proposed a total ban on robot deliveries.  According to Supervisor Norman Yee, “Our streets and our sidewalks are made for people, not robots.  This is consistent with how we operate in the city, where we don’t allow bikes or skateboards on sidewalks.”  On the positive side, San Francisco’s Small Business Commission voted 5-1 against the ban, but ultimately the entire Board of Supervisors will decide if the proposed ban will become law.  If past experience is any indicator, San Francisco will continue its role to “lead the nation” as The Banning Capital of the Country. 

First and foremost are the safety concerns of ban proponents.  At least that’s what they say.  The robots, which travel at around the mind-boggling speed of four miles per hour, are said to pose a danger to vulnerable populations like children, seniors, and folks with disabilities.  Notwithstanding the fact that autonomous delivery robots are highly visible and easy to avoid, they are equipped with sensors and cameras specifically designed to avoid running into pedestrians.  Furthermore, right now while the technology is relatively new, each robot is chaperoned by a live human being who could step in and take control in an emergency.  Absent any rules, regulations—or $1,000 fines plus a jail sentence as proposed by Yee—what business is going to let its robots wander the sidewalks, run amok, and mow pedestrians down?  What insurance company would insure a robot delivery company that didn’t have a safety plan in place, especially in today’s sue-happy society?  Since the insurance company would have to pay out big bucks if anyone were hurt, chances are very high that its safety standards would be more stringent than lax government safety standards with no accountability.  And, despite the fact that several states have passed laws allowing the robots to deliver food, flowers, and other small packages, and tens of thousands of pavement miles in cities around the world have already been logged by the robots, not one single robot accident has ever been recorded.  We assume that the possibility than an accident could occur is reason enough for the ban.     

The next biggest concern of the banners is the prospect of taking away “many entry level jobs that are shrinking away every day.”  The hypocrisy of the Luddites is breathtaking considering that it’s these very same folks who push for minimum wage increases and more mandated employee benefits and then suddenly are concerned about “shrinking” jobs.  Furthermore, while indeed some mundane delivery jobs would be lost to the delivery robots, other new jobs will be created.  Two robot companies named Dispatch and Marble are already operating in the Bay Area—and creating new jobs of their own.  After all, designing, building, testing, and improving robots requires someone to come up with a better and better product, and ultimately those high-tech jobs are more satisfying (and pay more) than delivery jobs.  Small Business Commission Chair Mark Dwight, who opposed Yee’s ban, owns Rickshaw Bagworks, which makes custom bags, noted, “There would be a lot of things in society that were based on technology that wouldn’t exist today if we were just concerned about people losing their jobs.  We wouldn’t have sewing machines.  What would I be doing?  Sewing all my bags by hand?  That’s a 150-year-old technology that made it a lot easier to make the things we wear and carry.”

So, if safety isn’t really the issue and lower-level jobs will be replaced by better, high-paying jobs, why even suggest a ban?  We suspect a darker motive here as voiced by Yee:  “I see the value of innovation for public and private good; however, let’s be honest about how some emerging technologies have been operating as if no rules apply to them.”  Hmm…“some emerging technologies”?  That can only mean the evil and hated (by politicians, not the riding public) Uber and Lyft.  The tech busses could also be added to the list, though by this time they’re more accepted by the bureaucrats (who don’t mind the millions paid out in fees).  The politicians have definite concerns about not repeating past “mistakes” when not regulating tech services at the first sign of their existence meant having to play catch up.  Thus, Yee taking the proactive approach, noted that in meetings with representatives from the robot delivery companies, safety was discussed and their claims “weren’t convincing.”  Coupled with this obsession to micromanage every activity in The City is the lack of enforcement that the bureaucrats fear in this “Wild West.”  At the end of the day, without laws—and enforcement—on the books, the bureaucrats have absolutely no control over citizens’ voluntary choices, and nothing infuriates a power-lusting bureaucrat more than inadequate enforcement.  As the only member of the Small Business Commission to vote for the ban noted, “The enforcement factor in this town is the weakest link in our administration.  There is just not the manpower to do that properly.”  Of course they could hire more city employees to “help” with enforcement, but there goes that $10.1 billion budget again. 

One interesting footnote to this issue is a robot company called Starship Technologies, which is based in Estonia.  It’s been pre-empting the type of ban Yee is proposing by working with lawmakers in states across the country to pass legislation to allow autonomous robots to make deliveries, and it’s been successful in Virginia, Idaho, and Wisconsin.  Unfortunately, Starship helped guide the new laws that specify acceptable robot sizes and shapes.  Needless to say, the laws “happen to” match the very same dimensions of Starship’s robots, so what a neat way to eliminate the competition from other robot companies.  Another example of crony capitalism, not the Real McCoy. 

Finally, we find a certain irony in Yee’s proposed ban in that he claims to want to “help” those with less resources, like older residents and the disabled, yet his ban would eliminate an opportunity to cut costs for these folks who rely on delivery services to bring them food, medicine, and other essentials.  By cutting delivery fees and tipping, deliveries by robots could eventually cut the cost of local, same-day delivery to $1.  Now, that would actually help those who could use a break, and it wouldn’t involve another useless ban, fines, enforcement—and hypocrisy.