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How not to smother progress

WGS001B37 How not to smother progress Shutterstock 626415023

Autonomous delivery robots could soon be a common sight in the US. Walnut Creek and Redwood City are both allowing companies to pilot the robots on their sidewalks. The states of  Florida, Virginia, Idaho and Wisconsin have all passed a state laws that permit the use of unmanned delivery robots on sidewalks and in crosswalks. But one city, San Francisco is bucking the trend.


What other cities see as progress - autonomous robots that make our lives easier by easing congestion and cutting delivery costs - San Francisco sees as a threat to the freedom of its sidewalks and to the jobs of its people.


While San Francisco has just given approval to allow the automated wheeled bots to operate within the city, it is only under a strict set of rules. The robot must be accompanied by a person and can only travel at three miles per hour. They can only be used in industrial areas where there are few people. Only nine robots in total are allowed, with only three companies operating them.


Bob Doyle, a spokesman for the Association for Advancing Automation, says the city is effectively stifling innovation by implementing such measures


“To put such a strict limit on these types of autonomous delivery vehicles drastically slows down the process of testing and the potential for these being put into (use for) the general public,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle, adding that he hopes San Francisco’s action isn’t the beginning of a wave of neo-Luddite regulations.


The role of regulations


Innovation and regulation have always had a complicated relationship. Technological advances are happening at such a pace that governments and their regulators are struggling to keep up. A government’s job is to keep its society and its population safe. The innovator’s job is to solve modern-day challenges. Innovators complain that too much regulation stifles what they can do. But regulators argue that, without their rules, there could be drastic unintended consequences from the introduction of new technology.


Indeed, some prominent innovators argue in favour of regulations for exactly that reason. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and Space X, says that we need to regulate AI – the type of technology behind autonomous robots - before it becomes a danger to humanity. “AI is a rare case where we need to be proactive about regulation instead of reactive. Because I think by the time we are reactive in AI regulation, it’s too late.” Musk argues that, too often, governments regulate after “a whole bunch of bad things happen”.


It’s true to say that regulation is often reactive. You only need to look at the financial sector following the 2008 financial crisis for evidence of that. Yet a decade later, Donald Trump was swept into the White House on an agenda that promised, among other things, a massive drive towards deregulation, particularly in the financial sector. Trump argued that too much regulation strangles economic growth by limiting the ability of the private sector to create new jobs. But many of those regulations were in place to keep people safe such as product safety standards and construction site rules.


Regulators catching up


Innovation often occurs outside of the reach of regulators. Take Uber, for instance. Its ride-hailing service in London isn’t subject to the same regulations as taxi firms. Transport for London (TfL) recently refused to renew Uber’s licence, citing concerns about corporate governance. Although Uber is still operating while an appeal process is heard, it does raise the question of whether TfL’s action will kill off a very popular new form of transport in many countries.


A recent ruling by the European Court of Justice, which said that Uber was a taxi firm, not a technology business, means that the company will now have to conform to stricter regulation and licensing within the EU. This could mean higher costs for the company and ultimately, for its passengers.


Uber’s equivalent in China, Didi Chuxing, recently had to comply with new rules handed down by local governments in Beijing and Shanghai, which stated that drivers had to be local. This was a big blow to the ride-hailing company because most of its drivers were migrant workers. 




Industries often prefer to govern themselves. Several large tech companies, including Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft recently launched the Partnership on Innovation. Its aim is to discuss the issues raised by the increasing use of AI and come up with best practices.


But the internet is perhaps a cautionary tale for this type of self-regulation. When the internet emerged as a new technology it was largely left to its own devices. But now governments are scrambling to try to regulate it, driven by concerns about social media and mental health, alongside copyright infringements and free speech. 


Economic growth


There is no doubt that innovation is important for economic growth. The EU’s Science, Research and Innovation Performance (SRIP) report (2018), recommends adapting regulatory frameworks to incentivise innovation and foster innovation-friendly business environment.


San Francisco would do well to make similar recommendations. Those autonomous robots that the city is regulating so tightly have the potential to increase profits in “last mile” delivery, the short distance between outlet and customer. They will reduce labour costs for companies, increase efficiency and help alleviate traffic congestion by reducing the number of vehicles on the road.


If San Francisco misses out on those benefits, the city might find itself being left behind as the robots roll into the future in other cities.

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