Photo Credit: Molly Devore/The Badger Herald.
Yesterday, the Madison Transportation Policy and Planning Board supported a measure that would restrict the movement of the UW-Madison dining hall robots to the campus area. The measure will now head to the city council, which will decide if it becomes law.
The robots are owned by Starship Technologies, a company based in San Francisco. The company is voluntarily choosing to keep the robots on campus. But Assistant City Attorney Amber McReynolds says the city’s measure would protect the City from problems with other robots.
“The rationale for this ordinance is basically to codify the current informal operation that we have going on in the city,” says McReynolds. “While the current operators are being responsible and respectful, there’s no guarantees about what other operators might come to this city. Right now, without an ordinance, any company could come tomorrow and operate in the city. And without an ordinance, we wouldn’t be able to regulate that.”
McReynolds says that Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway sponsored the ordinance rather than ban the robots entirely.
According to Jeff Novak, Director of UW-Madison Housing, there are currently 30 robots operating on campus, serving upwards of 200 students a day. He says students have wanted food delivered to their dorms for a while now.
Plus, he says, using the robots is cheap.
“It’s very affordable, with the $1.99 delivery fee,” says Novak. “And of course you don’t have to tip a robot.”
Novak also says that UW-Madison Housing wanted to start a delivery system for a while, but they couldn’t do it without the robots.
“We tried the delivery service a few years ago and could not get people to come and take those jobs,” Novak says.
Wisconsin law currently prohibits delivery robots from using municipal streets, but doesn’t ban them from sidewalks.
While the ordinance would ban delivery robots from city sidewalks, they would be permitted on city crosswalks that connect dorms. The city traffic engineer could permit or restrict the use of certain routes due to construction or other road closures.
According to Yang Tao, the City of Madison’s traffic engineer, nobody has complained about the current delivery robots. However, he worries that problems could arise if other tech companies try to do the same thing in the downtown area.
“If lots of other folks, especially small organizations or individuals want to deploy them in other parts of the city I think it’s going to be more concerning, so we’re probably going to hear more complaints from the public,” says Tao. “The type of complaints we would expect would be the conflicts between these devices and pedestrians. We observed some operations of the devices on the UW campus and city streets near we found the way UW is operating it, they’re very mindful in dealing with pedestrians, making sure everything is safe.”
Novak says the university has no plans to expand the program beyond the campus area.
The Transportation Policy and Planning Board recommended the ordinance unanimously. It now goes before the full City Council for approval.