Civic News
AI / Cybersecurity

Can those food delivery bots travel the District’s streets safely?

D.C. is moving forward with bot delivery — cautiously. We spoke to Councilmember Mary Cheh about it.

This is the second in a series of articles exploring the delivery bot pilot program to be rolled out in D.C. this month. 

It’s a dilemma for the ages, isn’t it? The challenge of transporting people and things from point A to point B seems likely to be with us for as long as space and time — and faraway loved ones and online shoe shopping — exist.

The newest innovation in response to this problem is autonomous transportation technology. (Think: self-driving cars , currently on their way to becoming mainstream.) Autonomous transportation technology boasts many possible positive implications, but as with progress in general  —  and technology advancements in particular — they also present brand new problems to be solved.

D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, chair of the Committee on Transportation and Energy, is well aware of this. She has been instrumental in pushing forward autonomous transportation technology in the District  —  most recently with the Personal Delivery Device Act of 2016, legislation that legalized a pilot program for autonomous delivery bots capable of making deliveries with no human assistance.

While she’s hopeful regarding the implications of this new technology, she is careful to note that there are still questions that must be answered before wide-scale roll out of the technology can occur.

New technology, new problems

Potential vandalism or theft present a clear challenge, but Starship Technologies, the Estonian company that manufactures the bots, is confident that the bots include sufficient security measures, like alarms and cameras, to deter most would-be thieves and vandalizers. But Cheh won’t be convinced entirely until a couple of other questions are answered.

The councilmember says she’s waiting for this month’s pilot program to confirm whether the bots, successful elsewhere, have the technical capacity to safely navigate the District’s streets. There is reason to be optimistic, since the same model of bots is now operating in Europe, having safely covered 14,500 miles and counting.

Still, the bots are new to the city, and Cheh would like to see them successfully navigating these particular streets and sidewalks before she’s ready for the bot program to move from the pilot stage to full-scale implementation.

But more complicated challenges exist  —  and ones with more potentially destructive effects. An obvious and significant concern is the potential for misuse of bots to transport dangerous materials to target government buildings or embassies. In a post-9/11 world, where the threat of terrorism ranks high on global security concerns, this question holds particular salience.

Importantly, baked into the Personal Delivery Device Act of 2016 are restrictions on movement of the bots, especially applicable in the high-profile city of Washington, D.C. For example, the bots are not permitted to travel near sensitive areas, such as the White House or Capitol Building. But questions arise around viability of these restrictions in the face of sophisticated hacking threats. For Cheh, the issue of weaponization of the bots is question that must still be answered. She says that she “hopes to gain clarity on the topic” in an upcoming hearing.

So, is it worth it?

If these hurdles can be overcome, there are compelling environmental and social reasons to support the proliferation of this technology in the District and beyond. Cheh is quick to point out the environmental benefits available through the use of these zero-carbon delivery bots. She also notes that seniors with limited mobility, as well as individuals living in food deserts could stand to gain from easy, affordable food delivery. But whether or not these benefits will be reaped remains to be seen — and will depend on the city’s ability to solve tough problems.

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