In February, a lobbyist friend urged Erik Sartorius, the executive director of the Kansas League of Municipalities, to look at a newly introduced bill that would affect cities. The legislation involved “personal delivery devices”—robots that, as if in a sci-fi movie, might deliver a bag of groceries, a toolbox, or a prescription to your doorstep. It would have limited their weight to 150 pounds, not including the cargo inside. And it would have allowed them to operate on any sidewalk or crosswalk in Kansas at speeds up to 6 miles per hour, the pace of a quick human jog.
Lawmakers and lobbyists say the bill was drafted with help from Amazon. In later testimony to a state senate committee, Amazon lobbyist Jennie Massey said the bill would allow devices like Scout, the company’s bright blue, six-wheeled robot, “to bring new technology and innovation to Kansas.” She noted that Amazon had invested $2.2 billion in Kansas since 2010, and that the company employed 3,000 full-time workers in the state.
Sartorius knew the bill wouldn’t fly. “I think some members of the committee hadn’t really considered the impact on their communities,” he says of the bill. He worried about a provision that would have barred cities and towns from creating their own robot regulations. Officials in Kansas City, Kansas, objected that the robots would be using public roads and sidewalks without paying into local coffers. A Teamsters representative said the legislation did not include enough testing requirements, and said the robots could eventually replace human workers.
The Kansas bill failed, but it was just one battle in a wider war. Amazon and FedEx seeded and backed similar bills permitting delivery robots in more than a dozen states this year. At least six have become law.
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Both Amazon and FedEx are developing delivery robots. FedEx’s bot, which is called Roxo and looks like a small refrigerator, has completed on-road tests in four cities. Scout, built to deliver Prime packages, also is testing in four cities. The companies present similar visions: A delivery van full of robots would arrive in a neighborhood, and robots would travel the “last mile” to customers’ doorsteps without human aid.
The bots aren’t quite there yet. In a blog posted last month, Amazon said it is testing a small number of devices during weekday daylight hours, for now with a person (“an Amazon Scout Ambassador”) present. FedEx CEO Fred Smith wrote in a letter to shareholders this month that Roxo is preparing for a second round of tests. “We’ll come out of this pandemic with a greater understanding of how FedEx can benefit customers—and society—through these devices,” he wrote.
A spokesperson for Amazon did not respond to questions about the timing of the state bills or Amazon’s role, but said the company was broadly supportive of the legislation. Isabel Rollison, a spokesperson for FedEx, said the company is “seeking the authority to operate Roxo the On Demand Bot across the country and is committed to working with state and local leaders to bring testing and operations of our personal delivery devices to their communities.”
“I’m worried about it walking up on a person and losing control, or getting stuck in a pothole, or climbing up a person’s porch and falling through.”
Adam Hollier, Michigan state senator
Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies emerging tech, says the bills don’t mean you’ll wake up tomorrow to an Amazon robot knocking on your door. Instead, he says, they reflect “the recognition by well-positioned companies with capable national and in some cases in-state lobbying operations that now is the right time to shape favorable legislation on this topic, before everyone starts talking about it.” Companies often want to create “legal certainty,” he says, to give themselves more flexibility as they develop and start using new tech.
The bills contain similar language but are not identical. They permit the robots to travel on some sidewalks at speeds up to 10 mph (in North Carolina). Some include weight limits (200 pounds in Idaho and Missouri); others don’t address the weight of the robots at all (Utah).