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Transportation and Mobility

More Delivery Robots Are Coming To LA Streets. The City Is Studying How To Manage Them

A small, pink, four-wheeled delivery robot rolls along a sidewalk next to pedestrians.
Pedestrians walk past a Coco human remote-controlled delivery robot as it is demonstrated during the announcement of a restaurant delivery pilot program on Feb. 3, 2021 in San Pedro.
(Patrick T. Fallon
AFP via Getty Images)
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You could be seeing more robots on Los Angeles sidewalks.

The City Council approved a motion Tuesday to explore how — and how many — unmanned delivery vehicles should be allowed to operate in L.A.

The motion from Councilmembers Bob Blumenfield and Mike Bonin directs the Department of Transportation and Bureau of Street Services to work with the City Attorney’s office to develop regulations for a pilot program using the personal delivery devices, or PDDs.

PDDs are already on city streets in L.A.’s San Pedro and Venice neighborhoods. Those fleets, managed by robot service companies Kiwibot and Coco, have a total of about 35 devices, according to LADOT spokesperson Colin Sweeney.

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The companies’ vehicles are controlled remotely by a human. PDDs are seen as a way to cut down on carbon emissions by providing clean energy “last-mile” trips to deliver groceries and retail orders.

LADOT “wants to incentivize innovation without compromising the safety and access of our public right of way,” Sweeney said in a statement.

City staff will consider issues including sidewalk accessibility, charging permit fees for the devices to use public rights-of-way, how enforcement could work, and consumer and public privacy. Right now, the thinking is that permit fees will cover the cost of the pilot program, but that could change.

A four-wheeled delivery robot rolls on a sidewalk in Los Angeles as people approach in the distance.
A Postmate delivery robot is seen on its route to deliver food to customers in Los Angeles on March 24, 2020.
(Chris Delmas
AFP via Getty Images)

PDDs “can help reduce traffic and pollution, but can also create concerns about safety and accessibility on our streets and sidewalks,” Sweeney said. “The framework adopted in council today will help us enforce common-sense regulations on this new industry and we will continue to study the impact of these devices on streets in the coming months to assess the effectiveness of the program."

The motion passed 10-5; a few councilmembers spoke out against the plan, voicing concerns about the impacts to public safety and public space. They’re also worried the delivery robots will take jobs away from their human constituents in an already tumultuous economy.

Councilmember Paul Koretz believes adding the delivery vehicles to sidewalks that are already difficult for pedestrians to navigate “is a recipe for disaster.” He said in a statement:

“Our sidewalks are already congested with homeless encampments, illegal business signs, street vendors, plus the obvious bicycles ... Additionally, we’ve worked too hard to bolster the gig economy in Los Angeles, only to see these jobs disappear along with workers, many of whom have struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic, chipped away at by automating that sector. In fact, many former rideshare (Lyft/Uber) drivers have transitioned to food and delivery service over the last year, so why would we now give those jobs up to robots especially when automation will compromise public safety as well.”

Councilmember Paul Krekorian derided what he views as "government doing everything it can to bend over backwards to try to accommodate the instant availability of delivery, even when it means promoting the gig economy at the expense of actual jobs."

Councilmember Kevin De León echoed those concerns, saying that working class families “are often hit the hardest in the name of technology.”

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“I know it's very impossible to stop the advancement of technology," he said. "Some of this stuff has been fantastic for us, other stuff has had very profound implications for the economy, because we haven't been retraining folks for the future."

As far as fleet size, the city’s Public Works Committee recommended that the city allow “up to 75 devices based within a neighborhood council boundary” and notes that expansions or reductions of fleet size should be decided by LADOT. Under the motion, vehicles currently operating in Venice and San Pedro can continue to do so while the city develops its pilot program.

LADOT and BSS are due to report back to the council on their progress in 120 days.