Delivery robots

A Starship robot delivers a bill regulating ‘personal delivery devices’ to Gov. Jay Inslee to sign.

Photo Courtesy: Starship

OLYMPIA - The Washington State Legislature recently greenlit autonomous delivery robots, similar to the robot Amazon announced earlier this year.

The bill would establish regulatory framework for the operation of personal delivery devices, which are automated devices intended to deliver property via sidewalks and crosswalks.

The operation of personal delivery devices (PDD or device) is authorized under certain conditions.

A PDD is an electrically powered, automated device weighing less than 120 pounds and intended primarily to transport property on a sidewalk or crosswalk at speeds of 6 miles per hour (mph) or less. The operation of the PDD is supported by a remote operator who may either monitor or exercise active control of the device.

Unmanned vehicle systems, including autonomous systems, have been developed over time for various purposes, including governmental, research-related, hobby-related, and commercial purposes. Autonomous systems are machines capable of performing tasks in the world by themselves, without explicit human control. Examples range from autonomous helicopters to robotic vacuum cleaners. In recent years, there have been developments in the field of automated ground-based delivery systems.

Several jurisdictions, including several states and the District of Columbia, have adopted laws or regulations in recent years governing automated ground-based delivery devices. These laws and regulations have provided definitions and operational parameters for the devices, as well as modifications to the jurisdiction's rules of the road governing sidewalk use and crosswalk use.

A business may operate a PDD under several conditions.

The PDD travels only on sidewalks and crosswalks or, in areas where sidewalks are not provided, in areas where pedestrians are permitted to travel under law, as long as the adjacent roadway has a speed limit of 45 mph or less.

Under the law, For the period before July 1, 2021, prior approval is received by the jurisdiction governing the right-of-way containing the sidewalks and crosswalks upon which the PDD is intended to travel. In areas where PDDs were operated as of February 8, 2019, no prior approval is required.

For the period beginning July 1, 2021, the business must receive an automated carrier permit from the Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) before operating a PDD within the state. The PDD operator must also be actively monitoring or controlling the device.

The business that operates the PDD is required to maintain an insurance policy with a liability coverage of at least $100,000 for damages arising from the operation of the device. The business must provide proof of the insurance to the regulatory authority before beginning operations.

The law also mandates the business must report any incidents resulting in personal injury or property damage to the regulatory authority and to local law enforcement within 48 hours of the incident.

A PDD may not be operated to transport hazardous material in a quantity and form that poses an unreasonable risk to health, safety, or property when transported in commerce. A PDD may not transport consumable alcohol.

A local government that governs the right-of-way containing the sidewalk or crosswalk upon which the PDD may travel may authorize or condition the operation of a PDD to some extent. Until July 1, 2021, the jurisdiction must authorize the operation of a PDD before a business may operate a PDD within the jurisdiction.

Beginning on July 1, 2021, the jurisdiction may prohibit the travel of a PDD within all or part of the jurisdiction's boundaries. In addition, at any time after the effective date of the bill, a local government may allow PDDs with higher maximum speeds or higher maximum weights to operate within the jurisdiction.

Supporters of the bill told lawmakers it is very exciting.

"This is very exciting, almost like science fiction. The delivery device is kind of like a cooler on wheels, controlled remotely by artificial intelligence. It is programmed to get out of the way of pedestrians. This is a new technological way to accomplish everyday mundane tasks, such as the delivery of restaurant food, flowers, or books. This method is quick, nonpolluting, quiet, and does not take up space on the roadway. This sets up a framework that regulates the travel of these devices on sidewalks, including sideboards about interactions with pedestrians and bicyclists. There are concerns about speed and the delivery of alcohol that will be taken up in a forthcoming amendment."

Logan Bahr with the Association of Washington Cities said, "The root of the concern of the Association of Washington Cities (AWC) is the responsibility of the AWC members to effectively manage public rights-of-way (ROW), including sidewalks. The bill appears to shift the burden of active management of ROW onto cities. There are also some practical questions: which jurisdiction is responsible for ensuring responsibilities are met, like proper automated driving technology, insurance, and so forth? The AWC has questions about how these devices would be incorporated into the current cities' regulatory responsibilities. The AWC would like to have a thoughtful discussion on ROW management for this bill, for electric scooters, and any other new technologies coming along."

The Washington State Department of Transportation wanted additional safety considerations in the legislation.

"The Washington State Department of Transportation would like to see some additional safety considerations. These devices should emit an audible warning when approaching pedestrians and have a flag for visibility. The bill should clarify an agency's ability to regulate the devices on paved and unpaved trails," Mike Dornfield with the Washington State Department of Transportation said.

District 13 lawmakers Tom Dent, Alex Ybarra, and Judy Warnick voted in favor of the bill. 

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