Author: Bern Grush Municipalities can leverage regulation of urban robots to advance readiness for robotaxis and other AVs
As we prepare to launch our Municipal Guides to Public-area Mobile Robots (PMRs) early in 2024, one of URF's urban planning members recently pointed out that: “Municipalities may not be thinking much about PMRs yet - but they seem to be spending a lot of time and resources on preparing to regulate, enforce, and manage the arrival of automated vehicles (AVs) on their streets.”
Worldwide, there are very many more public-area mobile robots than there are AVs (like robotaxis) in commercial service. While small, automated delivery robots are currently the majority type of PMR, use cases for these small robots operating on pedestrian walkways and public spaces include property maintenance, safety patrols and more. PMRs have already been in commercial operation in far more cities in North America and Europe than have robotaxis and other AVs.
If city planners want to move up the learning curve faster, with lower risk, they might begin by preparing for public-area mobile robots (PMRs). Enhancing municipal readiness for the deployment of robotaxis and other AVs can begin with exploring the governance issues required for successful deployment of PMRs.
Turn urban robot similarities into AV readiness
Here's how municipalities can leverage PMR similarities to accelerate their progress while preparing for robotaxis and other AVs:
Technology familiarization: Regulating PMRs provides municipalities with an opportunity to familiarize themselves with vehicle automation. This knowledge would be crucial when preparing for higher-risk vehicles like robotaxis with 100-400 times greater momentum.
Accessibility and mobility: Regulations for PMRs necessitate an evaluation of the city's infrastructure, particularly sidewalks, curbs, and crosswalks. This process can reveal areas that need improvement to ensure accessibility and safety for both pedestrians and automated vehicles. Pickup/dropoff, pedestrian awareness, and crosswalk safety are three critical common areas of concern.
Traffic integration: Regulating PMRs requires municipalities to consider traffic management and coordination (especially at intersections and other pedestrian crossings). This experience can be applied when planning for the integration of robotaxis into existing traffic systems.
Urban analytics: Managing regulations for PMRs involves data collection and analysis. This can be extended to gather information on pedestrian traffic patterns, high-demand areas, and potential robotaxi pickup and drop-off areas.
Community outreach: The implementation of regulations for PMRs necessitates public engagement and education about automated vehicles and devices. Such groundwork can be expanded to include robotaxis.
Regulatory framework: Crafting regulations for PMRs involves a regulatory framework for new forms of policy and governance. This experience can be invaluable when extended to the operation of robotaxis.
Risk management: Regulations for PMRs will prompt municipalities to consider safety and liability issues. These are extendable to similar concerns related to robotaxis.
Industry collaboration: Regulating PMRs leads to collaborations with technology companies such as IoT, telecommunications, updated traffic signal systems, etc. Many of these will be the same or the same type of companies that municipalities will engage with when deploying or permitting AVs.
Real-world testing: Regulations for PMRs can provide a controlled environment for testing automated vehicle technology. This experience can be scaled up for robotaxi programs—and may make subsequent AV readiness less expensive.
Ethical considerations: Addressing legal and ethical issues is a crucial aspect of regulating PMRs. Similar considerations with regard to privacy, data security, and liability surround AVs. This provides valuable ways for municipalities to get a headstart on understanding, regulating, licensing, enforcing connected, automated vehicles.
Urban robot advantages
In addition to the opportunity to advance municipal experience with vehicle automation, there are several additional urban advantages to be gained from permitting and regulating PMRs that should not to be overlooked by municipalities:
Social and political: In general, a PMR carries less that 1% of the momentum of a robotaxi. Hence, PMRs are far less likely to harm a human. This means the risks of PMR trials and pilots are far less from a social and political perspective.
Avoiding duplication: As automated vehicles (including robotaxis) become pervasive, automatic traffic signal (ATS) systems will need to be upgraded. Some of those ATS systems will need to be upgraded a second time (specialized, connected walk signals) when the municipality is ready to permit PMRs. Doing them both at the same time will save considerable expense.
Business improvement districts: deployment of PMRs for last-mile delivery can support local businesses by enabling them to offer affordable delivery services, enhancing customer satisfaction and loyalty.
Local employment: deployment of PMRs requires staffing for remote oversight. Many of these jobs can be filled by employees with mobility challenges (such as being a wheelchair user).
Traffic orchestration: there will be a need for traffic orchestration for both robotaxis (pick up and drop off) and PMRs (when and which sidewalks/pathways may be used). Although these are not identical systems, they are very similar in operation such that it would behoove a municipality to be aware of their commonalities during planning. This will save considerable expense compared to resolving them independently. What is in common (and new to municipalities) is the fact that both types of vehicles are without a proximate human operator.
Monetization: the municipal services required to manage the traffic systems for both robotaxis and PMRs will require some level of monetization to cover these costs. There are many ways to do that, but the approach any municipality takes is likely to be similar, so that it is valuable to consider both at the same time.
Join us today!
Addressing PMR regulation, enforcement, and traffic management early provides enormous operational experience for municipalities who will also soon be addressing the same concerns for robotaxis. We invite anyone who is working on policy development, regulations and urban planning for AVs to join the Urban Robotics Foundation to become part of our collaborative, learn from global experience and accelerate the learning curve for your municipality.