City loosens rules for autonomous robots

Council agrees to increase speed limits, expand operating area for personal delivery devices

They still have a long way to go before they can compete with R2-D2, much less RoboCop, but autonomous robots will be able to travel both faster and farther in Palo Alto in the new year.

The City Council revised on Dec. 17 the rules for the city's nascent program for autonomous robots, known as "personal delivery devices" (PDDs). The program, which made its debut last year, has been rolling out slowly, with three companies obtaining permits and performing some test deliveries, according to a new report from the Public Works Department.

But while none of the robots have been active recently, according to staff, one company is trying to push the program's boundaries. Starship Technologies, which operates throughout the Bay Area, has requested that the city extend its one-year pilot program and the operating area for the robots, which were initially limited to downtown and California Avenue.

The expanded area, which the council approved, also includes Stanford Shopping Center, the Stanford University Medical Center and the Stanford West apartment complex west of Sand Hill Road. Public Works staff concurred in the report that these areas "are suitable for PDD operations" and that they should be made available to all autonomous-robot companies that wish to operate in Palo Alto.

Starship Technologies also requested the city raise the speed limit for its robots. The city's initial regulations established a speed limit of 2.4 mph, which is considered slow walking speed. Starship Technologies has requested an increase to 5 mph, consistent with its operations in other Bay Area jurisdictions.

To date, the company robots have traveled more than 13,000 miles and have performed more than 7,000 deliveries throughout the region without safety incidents or technology failures, according to Public Works. In Palo Alto, the company's robots have traveled more than 1,200 miles and performed more than 250 deliveries without incidents or failures, the report states.

Though the city has agreed to the measures proposed by Starship Technologies, the local program remains in place only on an interim basis. The Public Works report noted that there has not been enough robot activity to date to determine whether permanent regulations should be adopted.

The council approved the new rules for autonomous robots by a vote of 8-1, with Councilwoman Lydia Kou dissenting. Kou said she objected to the lack of information the council received since the pilot program was created in late 2017.

"We actually do not get any report back in terms of the pilot program. ... I think we need more information on that," Kou said.


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19 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 2, 2019 at 9:54 am

I would like to see some more rules issued about these robots.

Having seen them in action in Redwood City, I can see how they could be tripped over due to size, speed and noise. They need to have some type of flag that is eye level so that they will not be a danger to other sidewalk users.

Having read of the incident at Stanford Shopping Center where parents allowed their toddler to kick a security robot and then sued when the toddler was "hurt" by one, I think it should be made clear that these are not toys and children should not play with them, approach them or prevent them in any way from doing their job. Children should be taught they are someone else's property just like a bike, a wheelchair, or a walking frame.

Perhaps they should also have an audible warning. "Danger, Will Robinson", comes to mind.

17 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 2, 2019 at 10:52 am

How do these things work? If they are approaching a pedestrian from behind, will they slow down so they don't hit the person? If a person is approaching or standing still, will they turn or stop to avoid hitting the person?

1 person likes this
Posted by Munching in Munich
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 2, 2019 at 10:52 am

"that these are not toys"

Well, some say that leaders at the national level would like them equipped in serious attire to avoid such confusion.

Rumor is, they'll start with nicely pressed Brown Shirts....

1 person likes this
Posted by Eric
a resident of another community
on Jan 2, 2019 at 11:58 am

@Munching in Munich

If this is the robot army we are destined to fight, the odds are in our favor. They can be disabled with a simple non-damaging turn on their side.

Like this comment
Posted by Munching in Munich
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jan 2, 2019 at 12:23 pm

"destined to fight"

There shan't be a 'fight'; look how far google and facebook have got already, without even a whimper, let alone an argumenbt.

of course, I speak somewhat with tongue firmly planted in cheek.


5 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 2, 2019 at 12:31 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

At this rate autonomous robots will self select other autonomous robots for leader ship: Council staff and commissions

7 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Online is NOT how effective citizens communicate with government
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 2, 2019 at 2:11 pm

Palo Alto Online is NOT how effective citizens communicate with government is a registered user.

If you would prefer our government do something different, write to your electeds--NOT Palo Alto Online.

14 people like this
Posted by Wes
a resident of Green Acres
on Jan 2, 2019 at 7:08 pm

Robots should be kicked, at every opportunity, to show them where they stand in the pecking order. The robot who injured the toddler who kicked it should be dismantled in full view of the other robots

2 people like this
Posted by Bill
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 3, 2019 at 1:30 am

This comment section may not replace direct communication with elected representatives, but it serves well for citizens to kick around and share ideas in order to better understand where support lies. As a mobility-impaired person who walks with a cane, I am concerned about how these devices take my modified abilities into account. Even though I don't live or work in Palo Alto I certainly visit, and would be saddened if I had to curtail those visits because of problematic robot interactions. On the other hand these sound cool. It would be fun to see them in action.

6 people like this
Posted by Henry HB
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 3, 2019 at 5:44 am

Hello Palo Alto residents, my name is Henry - VP Marketing for Starship Technologies, the delivery robot company. Firstly, I really appreciate people spending time writing the comments above and taking an interest in our delivery bots. I want to spend some time answering your questions, so I'll start from the top :)

1) We do have robots in Redwood City and its great that you've seen them there. All of our robots do have a flashing flag as a safety feature. The lights on the robot flash when the robot is crossing streets as well. This is not only helpful for residents walking on sidewalks but also car drivers. We want to ensure our robots do not cause a nuisance to any residents of a city we're operating in. We have many different features to make sure this is the case including very sophisticated obstacle detection and autonomous driving systems. Basically, the robot will not bump into anything and will stop at a safe distance regardless of where a pedestrian, car or any other 'thing' is.

Kids love our robots and have been known to stroke and pet our bots like animals! We love seeing this, but as you said - the bots aren't toys and are most likely on a delivery when you see them! Some of our most popular users are mothers and fathers with children. The bots save them a lot of time instead of getting everyone in the car and driving to the store (that's on top of the negative impact of congestion and pollution caused by car travel). We really want to make cities greener with less pollution and less congestion - whilst offering low cost delivery to local residents from local stores.

2) Yes, the robots will always stop at a safe distance and will never bump into a pedestrian. It doesn't matter if the robot is coming from behind, the side of at any angle. As a pedestrian you don't have to worry about that. The robot will always move around you as a human if you're travelling on the same route/path on the sidewalk. Our robots have been built to 'act' like pedestrians, and seamlessly blend into pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk.

3) I can confirm that our bots are not autonomously self selecting other bots for leadership positions :)

4) Bill - thank you for your message. We have done a number of tests with mobility and vision impaired people to ensure they only positively impact your life. We have recently done a test with guide dogs and cane users to see how guide dogs interact with our robots. Also how the robots navigate cane users from all different angles and situations on the sidewalk. I am happy to say the results were very positive and the all users experienced great reactions from the robots. If you'd like any more detail on these tests, then please do feel free to email me at There is also a story you can read here if it is of interest to you. Web Link

Thanks so much for your questions and I'll monitor this page for a while longer in case there's any more that crop up.


12 people like this
Posted by The Robot Overlords
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 3, 2019 at 7:47 am

They are taking job... They want to destroy Humans... Resist!

6 people like this
Posted by R2D2
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 3, 2019 at 8:42 am

Simply put, people are replaceable.

In a robot-oriented world, there will be no more disease, starvation, infant mortality or even war as the Malthusian doctrine does not apply to non-humans.

Perhaps most importantly, there will no longer be any need or requirement for organized religion.

The Japanese have been creating some very futuristic and effective robots to date including pet dogs and lifelike girlfriends.

In time even these particular robots will be eliminated as they are being designed to specifically meet human needs. Once humans are gone and replaced by robots, there will be no need for a robot to have either a pet or girlfriend.

Bionic appendages + artificial intelligence can outperform and outhink any human.
and the early robots you are witnessing today are merely the early stages of robotic evolution...they are the Australopithiceans of a new world order.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 3, 2019 at 9:03 am

Boston Dynamics have some agile robots able to do amazing things, quite amusing to watch. Web Link Not sure if they have worked on practical uses but they certainly provide entertainment value.

Like this comment
Posted by One robot., one vote
a resident of Mountain View
on Jan 3, 2019 at 8:45 pm

This is an early step in ending the discrimination against robots. Because we all now know "discrimination" is a bad thing. Humans, cockroaches, robots, microwaves. What's the difference?

2 people like this
Posted by Eric
a resident of another community
on Jan 3, 2019 at 9:05 pm

For real though, the city is giving away its public space as part of the tech push to automate our jobs. Tip the robots over and they will go away, there is no need for politeness.

2 people like this
Posted by R2D2
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jan 3, 2019 at 9:22 pm

> This is an early step in ending the discrimination against robots. Because we all now know "discrimination" is a bad thing.

Do robots have souls and are they capable of having/sharing true human feelings?

Does a bionic mechanism with a microprocessor and a bunch of embedded chips deserve to be treated like a human?

Though as humans we are all programmed to a certain extent, it's kind of difficult to imagine the assignment of human rights to a 'non-living' (in the biological sense) robot.

They are essentially a practical replacement for humans. Don't be surprised if someday they dominate Earth itself as humans are ineherently lazy (albeit innovative) when it comes to dealing with and avoiding mundane tasks.

Life has gotten robots are the next step along the way as they will easily be able to exist/operate in the polluted and toxic world we are leaving behind us.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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