Robots become humans – at least in the eyes of the law.

It had to happen:  New state laws are now classifying robots as humans – specifically when it comes to traffic laws.

With the proliferation of delivery robots in quite a few urban areas, the issue was bound to arise.  Car and Driver magazine reports that the state of Pennsylvania now defines delivery robots as “pedestrians” under a newly implemented law.

More specifically, the Pennsylvania legislative measures stipulate that “autonomous delivery robots” can lawfully maneuver on sidewalks, roadways and pathways.  They’re allowed to carry cargo loads as heavy as 550 lbs. at speeds up to 25 mph. on roadways.  (On pedestrian pathways and sidewalks, their speeds are capped at 12 mph.)

Pennsylvania is just the latest state to pass new laws regulating autonomous driving and flying technologies.  Indeed, there are now a dozen states that allow delivery robots access to roads as well as pedestrian pathways.

A gita and its owner out for a stroll.

The new laws raise some interesting questions.  Undeniably, delivery robots are a popular option for businesses and logistics companies; in a relatively short period of time their deployment has evolved well-past that of being merely a “novelty factor.”  “The sidewalk is the new hot debated space that the aerial drones were maybe three or five years ago,” reports Greg Lynn, CEO of Piaggio Fast Forward, a robotics design firm that offers a suitcase-sized robot called gita that follows its owner around.

But deploying robots onto street- and sidewalk-grids that were mapped out decades ago – when there were no expectations of the sci-fi scenarios of autonomous vehicles – can be quite problematic from a safety standpoint.

Of course, we’ve faced this issue before – and not so very long ago – with the emergence of the Segway “people mover.”  Those contraptions have caused more than a few problems (accidents and injuries) in urban centers around the world, leading some European center-cities to effectively ban their use — such as in Budapest and Barcelona

And in the city of San Francisco – no technology backwater – delivery robots have been prohibited from operating on most city streets.  Municipal leaders have cited potential safety concerns.  Moreover, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) has gone on record stating that robots “should be severely restricted, if not banned outright.”

One thing’s for sure:  With the fast-growing phenomenon of delivery robots and other autonomous vehicles, the whole notion of “sharing the road” has taken on an additional dimension. 

Do you have any interesting reports to share from what you may have encountered in your own town or region?  Please share your observations with other readers.

2 thoughts on “Robots become humans – at least in the eyes of the law.

  1. The issue facing autonomous vehicles of any sort — from drones to cars — is the fact, known to every sceptic in the street but seldom discussed, that computers are perfect machines. Until suddenly they aren’t. In that unfortunate sense, robots are indeed human.

    When glitches occur, how on earth do you tell a robot to pull over and give it a DUI? And will it respond to counseling and reform its behavior for next time?

    There’s the rub: If human, robots are sociopaths.

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