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Sidewalk robots: What happened in Toronto? (2021-Dec)

Updated: Apr 12

This blog has been transferred from its original LinkedIn post of 2021.12.21 to here on 2022.09.27. The expression 'sidewalk robot' has been updated to the expression 'public mobile robot' as defined in the ISO Draft standard 4448.

On Friday, December 17, 2021, Toronto’s City Council voted to suspend the operation of [any form of] public-area mobile robot (PMR) in public spaces “until the Ontario Ministry of Transportation pilot project [regarding this technology] is implemented and City Council decides whether to opt-in to the proposed pilot project or forgo participation.”

If you view the hour-long discussion leading up to the vote, you can watch seven councillors question the city’s Manager of Strategic Policy and Innovation for Transportation Services. At face value, the questioning was thorough and thoughtful and, as might be expected, focused on matters of control and safety in public space.

It is not important how knowledgeable councillors might be about robotics for such a discussion at this level of governance. They were right to rely on staff knowledge.

Although very well handled, the answers point to a considerable gap between councillors' concerns for the city’s understanding of this technology, its safety, and its operation and the actual level of reliable understanding that the city has achieved. It was clear from the answers provided by the manager questioned that his group has been long-starved with respect to the ability to study, trial or pilot this kind of technology. The city manager cannot be faulted, having been apparently given no tools and little funding to come prepared with a regulatory-weight answer that the councillors might accept in lieu of a motion to suspend the operation of these machines.

Hence, in the context of the questioning and in the specifics of the answers provided, the councillors voted 25 to 1 in favour of suspending the operation of these devices. This included the mayor, who made a remark that, in spite of his desire to see Toronto as an innovative city, he felt compelled to support suspension. Had I been one of the councillors, I would have been one of the 25 who voted for suspension.

I reviewed the online record of some 89 emails and letters written to the council in the days leading up to the vote. Of the 13 that I was able to read (the rest were undisclosed), 12 were against a ban, and one was for. One that I read detailed a poll of some 2500 people who were against a ban. I was one of the people who signed that poll, which is exactly contrary to what I said three sentences above.

So how is it that a near 100% majority of the citizens who commented before the vote were against a ban, but a near 100% majority of the city council voted for it? And how is it that I defend both sides?

A city council must consider its duty to all its citizens. Recall the mayor’s equivocal stance. It would be easy to argue that the council voted in defence of a small minority that feels threatened by this technology. It does not matter, at this moment, that there is little evidence of such a threat. It is the case that there have been complaints by wheelchair users and by people who are blind in other cities, not only our city. True, there are very few such complaints, but there are not zero. The fear — exaggerated given the evidence — cannot be brushed aside.

One of the city councillors mentioned the potential threat of maligned use of these devices. This is also something for which I know of no evidence but has been considered as a possibility in the draft international standards that are being written to provide the language needed to address the governance of these devices. Any innovation can be abused. So, while some may criticize this councillor for their concerns, such concerns are not absurd. The real question that needs to be answered is: "How can we take measures to avoid such an outcome?" And for that, the city has not provided sufficient time or funding for its staff to research such questions.

It seems to me that in the absence of many answers to many of the councillors’ questions, the vote could not go any other way than it did.

The fault here lies with our process.

Ignacio Tartavull, the CEO of one of the robotics companies now required to suspend its business, claims to have had several meetings since starting his company in 2019. He writes:

...before [deploying] the first robot we were in talks with both the city and the province. I made [it] my priority to have at least one meeting a month with these parties, so I've least spoken with 10 or so people at the city and another 10 to 15 at the provincial level. And [I received] some advice that governments act reactively so that the only way of getting regulations in place was to put enough robots out there that there is visibility on what we are doing.

If this is not exaggerated, then this is as good an explanation of the fault in our process as can be determined.

I am aware that many cities have been using this process in transportation for well over a decade. For example, many cities use it for ride-hailing and e-scooters.

Can it be any other way?

To anticipate every possible technology and to invest in regulatory research for every idea without constraint would obviously be prohibitive. But can we find some threshold, which, if exceeded, would provide some limited permission to try ideas in a constrained way, with some form of Government observation, or at least the requirement of some sort of formal reporting mechanism, so that a manager such as the one answering all the councillor’s questions on Friday would have been able to answer many more of these councillor’s questions? Could this not be done if the entrepreneur were able to share some of the costs of the reporting and the oversight?

Given the comment from Mr. Tartavull above, it seems that the process so far used for Toronto to find out about public mobile robots has required this single person to pay an outrageous price on behalf of all of us for “putting enough robots out there that there is visibility.” If his technology, on balance, proved to be harmful to society, then I am not sorry for his loss. But it appears that this technology might be quite helpful and beneficial. That was certainly the opinion expressed in the majority of the letters and posts that I read, and that seemed to be the view of many councillors as well.

This unfortunate process has brought to light a strongly shared opinion—that this technology needs regulation. It is rather a shame that we put nearly the entire cost of this discovery on this tiny entrepreneur.

Bern Grush, Executive Director, Urban Robotics Foundation

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