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.