By Julia Airey • December 12th, 2017
The District’s fleet of self-driving delivery robots will be rolling around downtown sidewalks for a while longer — and might be here to stay.
The D.C. Council voted unanimously Tuesday to extend the delivery-robot pilot program for 90 days, with an option to further extend it six months.
And if council member Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, gets her way on legislation she plans to introduce next month, the nation’s capital will become the first U.S. city with a permanent, regulated robot program.
Delivery robots are being tested in several cities across the country and around the world. Lawmakers in San Francisco this week banned the devices from most city streets, citing the technology’s disruptive impact on industry — much like Uber’s effect on taxis and Airbnb’s impact on hotels.
But Ms. Cheh said she believes the D.C. robot program will benefit not only local businesses that rely on gas-powered automobiles to make deliveries but also the environment.
“From what I understand of the literature, the last two miles of delivery is the most expensive,” she told The Times. “They’re also the most polluting.”
The robots, which look like coolers on wheels, run on fuel-efficient batteries, reducing the need for short-range deliveries by car. Each one can carry up to 25 pounds of groceries or other goods, can travel about 4 mph and has cameras and sensors to avoid pedestrians and other obstacles.
Using built-in GPS, the robots currently deliver groceries and take-out food in Georgetown and Mount Pleasant.
The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) oversees the robot program and may propose changes to it in January. In an email to The Times, DDOT expressed support for extending the program’s end date, as it gives the agency more time to study the robots.
“We want a bigger sample size to see if this approach could truly reduce carbon emissions and safety concerns by removing significant numbers of large delivery trucks off the road,” an agency spokesperson wrote. “We also need to see more specific data on what routes the robots are actually traveling.”
Ms. Cheh said the basic guidelines for robots will likely remain in the legislation she intends to offer in January.
“I think the area where they operate will stay the same,” she said. “I think the limitation on how fast they can go and how much they can carry will stay the same.”
The Personal Delivery Device Pilot Program began in March 2016 and was set to expire at the end of this year.
The robots are manufactured by the British firm Starship Technologies, which said it was unable to provide the number of its self-driving devices operating in the District because the fleet constantly changes.
In an email, Starship Technologies said the robots had made “thousands of deliveries” over the past year, and it would explore expanding their services if the city’s program were made permanent.
“We’re proud to be operating in D.C.,” a company spokesperson wrote.
As the chair of the Transportation Committee, Ms. Cheh has been instrumental in helping ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft remain in the District.
“I like innovative things,” she said. “I like things that move us forward.”