The future is now, and that’s why, Wednesday morning, the Dallas City Council said sure why not to a pilot program that will send a troop of robots cruising around our streets. Don’t sweat—these aren’t the bots that look likely to get smart and end existence. City Councilman Philip Kingston, whose city swath includes Uptown and pieces of downtown, noted dryly that the robots have not been “advocating to kill all humans,” a plus. They do appear capable of malfunctioning in a crosswalk, but that’s just conjecture.
The electronically powered machines are made by San Francisco-based Marble (“Your friendly neighborhood robot”). They’re about the size of an ice cream cart and they use light sensors to detect their surroundings so they don’t clang into stuff, such as cars or dogs or people. The pilot limits each participating company to 20 robots, and right now it’s just Marble, which contracts with national retailers to take on some of their deliveries. It has teamed with food delivery services, among other types of retailers, in other markets.
Department of Transportation Director Michael Rogers says Marble has an agreement with at least one national retailer to test delivery in Dallas—he twice used a pharmacy as a hypothetical—and a total of five store locations, but he says several prospects have been waiting to hear the city’s take. The bots will go no further than a one-mile radius from the location. They will go no faster than five miles an hour, and during the pilot phase, they will be accompanied by a human being who is no further than 20 feet from the bot at all times.
The City Council was all for it, although Tennell Atkins, whose District 8 is situated in Southern Dallas, peppered Rogers about where the things would roam—TBD—and about whether the width of all sidewalks could accommodate them. “Some of our sidewalks are narrow,” Atkins says, “and I cannot look into detail of them until I find out the boundaries.” He didn’t mention Dallas’ habit of closing off its sidewalks during construction. (Not sure if anyone has been covering this issue.)
Several other council members voiced full support for the six-month trial, which kicks off immediately even as Marble says it has a Nov. 1 goal to actually put the little helpers in play.
Other cities that have tested the bots include San Francisco, Washington D.C., Austin, and a couple other cities in California. Arlington has also been working with Marble.
Rogers says those cities told Dallas officials good things, but an official from Marble’s hometown had some strong words for the company late last year as San Francisco imposed strict regulations on delivery robots that limited the city to just three bots per bot company. Per TechCrunch:
“Maybe five years from now, when we have 20,000 robots roaming around on the streets and people have to walk on the streets with the cars,” Yee told the Board. “Maybe then we’ll do something. That seems to be a problem we have in San Francisco, and I don’t want to let things get out of hand again.”
In concluding the briefing, Mayor Mike Rawlings offered his support with a caveat, thinking back to a lack of transparency during dockless bikes’ experimental phase. “I assume since there are a lot less of the machines out there, that we’ll be clear about where they’re going to be and we’ll have all that information real-time,” he told Rogers. “Because you didn’t have that with the bikes. They didn’t want to give it to you.” Rogers assured him that would be the case.