Toronto City Council votes to ban sidewalk robots

Tiny Mile’s robots have operated in Toronto for over a year, but were pulled from the streets last week. | Source: Tiny Mile

Today, the Toronto City Council voted to ban sidewalk robots until the council has the opportunity to further study the effects they have on the community.

The ban will prevent all robots that operate on anything other than muscular power, are automated or remote controlled, and don’t transport passengers from traveling on the sidewalks and in bike lanes. Violators will face a $150 fine.

Councillors approved important amendments to the ban today to leave room for potentially opening the sidewalks of Toronto back up to robots in the future. It will be in effect until the Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s pilot program is implemented and the City Council decides if they want to opt into the project.

“I can’t go around doing all the boasting I do about all the smart people, and the great tech ecosystem and why this is a great place for people to invest and create jobs, especially for innovative tech companies, and then say that we’re not going to welcome innovation,” Mayor John Tory said. “But at the same time, it can’t just be a free-for-all”

The ban proposal was put forward by the Toronto Accessibility Advisory Committee, in response to a proposed ten year pilot program by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, which municipalities can opt into. The Committee expressed concerns about sidewalk robots being hazards for people with low mobility or vision, as well as elderly people and children.

The pilot program did set specifications on how robots should operate. Robots must be marked with the operator’s name and contact details, and would be required to have audible signals, reflectors with lights, brakes, insurance and must yield to pedestrians. The program also states that robots couldn’t travel about 10 km/hr, about 6 mph.

“Sidewalks are an important publicly-funded public resource, created for pedestrians to safely use,” David Lepofsky, the chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, said in a letter to the Council. “Their safe use should not be undermined for such things as private companies’ delivery robots.”

The Council also approved what Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, an advocate for the bill, called a “friendly” amendment that would issue a Transportation Innovation Challenge in the second quarter of 2022.

This event would give the City Council an opportunity to explore and support local economic development with respect to the sidewalk robots. The amendment requests that the general manager of transportation services consult with local entrepreneurs, sidewalk robot manufacturers, accessibility community members, law enforcement and more. The general manager would then report back to the Infrastructure and Environment Committee on their findings.

Last week, Tiny Mile, a company operating delivery robots in Toronto, announced on its Instagram that it would temporarily remove its robots from the city in the spirit of good faith.

Yesterday, Ignacio Tartavull, the CEO of Tiny Mile, expressed dissatisfaction with the now adopted Transportation Innovation Challenge, and the Councils offer to allow sidewalk robots to use the Canadian National Exhibition for testing ground.

“Under this challenge we will be able to operate at the Canadian National Exhibition,” Tartavull said in a LinkedIn post. “The only problem is that there are no deliveries to be done there … how do you fundraise as a startup if you have no customers using your product?”

Tiny Mile has operated in Toronto since September 2020. The robots aren’t autonomous, but are controlled remotely by human operators. Ryan Lanyon, the manager of strategic policy and innovation in transportation and chair of the Automated Vehicles Working Group, stated during the meeting that the city had not received any 311 complaints about the robots.

However, a concern for the council was that the sidewalk robots don’t fall under a specific jurisdiction, and citizens may not be sure where to file complaints.

The Toronto City Council isn’t the first governing body to put limitations on delivery robots. In December 2017, San Francisco voted to ban delivery robots on most sidewalks, and greatly restrict use in permitted areas. The ban prevented robotics companies from operating sidewalk delivery robots in San Francisco until 2019, when Postmates was approved for the first permit to test sidewalk deliveries in the city.

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