City Council Approves Test of Sidewalk Delivery Robots

The future took another step toward becoming reality Monday night as the West Hollywood City Council voted 3-2 to allow a trial run of food deliveries by robotic devices on the city’s sidewalks.

Beginning sometime in April, the food delivery service Postmates plans to do a 90-day trial run of the “autonomous delivery devices,” which are about three feet tall and two feet wide and move at about three miles per hour. The robots have monitors that detect people and other objects and can navigate around them.

The delivery robots will not come into apartment buildings or homes. People ordering deliveries will have to come to the sidewalk to get their food. When the robot is at the apartment building or house, the robot will send a text message to the person’s phone to come get the food, along with an electronic code for unlocking the container. Once the code is punched in, the storage container will open and the person can take out the food.

During this trial period, the robotic devices will be escorted by a human who will have a remote control to deal with any navigation issues and problems that arise.

If all goes well and the program is extended, the devices will then operate without a human chaperone. However, a human will be monitoring the delivery process from a mile or two away via a computer or tablet and sending instructions as necessary.

Approval comes with several conditions during this pilot period. Deliveries will only be allowed during daylight hours. Streets with extra narrow sidewalks or “substandard sidewalks” like Fountain Avenue will not be available for robotic use. Only three robotic devices will be allowed to operate within the city limits at any time.

Residents ordering food deliveries will be asked if it is alright if a robotic device delivers the food. They can opt out if they want.

Postmates will continue to use humans for deliveries of two miles or more as those are not practical for the robots due to the travel time. But for shorter deliveries, say just a few blocks from the restaurant, the robots would be ideal.  

“Our goal is to be help brick and mortar retail be able to compete in an era of increasing e-commerce,” Vignesh Ganapathy, Postmates’ head of government relations, explained to the Council.

The robots are already being tested in the Hollywood area. During the public comment period, WeHo resident Kevin Burton detailed he had fun when he encountered a robot on a sidewalk in Hollywood. He deliberately blocked the robot’s path several times and it automatically moved around him to get by.

Similarly, Councilmember Lindsey Horvath said she’d witnessed a robot in operation on Melrose Avenue near Fairfax and reported it did not hit anyone and the pedestrians seemed to enjoy watching it operate.

“I don’t think this slow moving robot is going to be the cause of chaos,” said Horvath, who praised Postmates for going through the proper channels to get official permission to operate the robots, unlike the electric scooter companies like Bird and Lime, which launched scooters in the city without any advance notice or city permission.

Councilmember John Heilman said it was worth a try, noting that delivery vehicles already add to traffic congestion and double park while dropping off food.

“I think the benefits of it are reducing vehicle traffic, automobiles, reducing carbon emissions and it also has the potential to serve a lot of people in the community,” said Heilman.

Councilmember John Duran voted against the trial run, feeling the city of West Hollywood was too dense and busy for such an endeavor. He suggested a smaller area would be more appropriate for the pilot, such as the Pacific Design Center campus or Cedars Sinai Medical Center campus.

“The pragmatist in me says not functional in such a dense part of Southern California, too much competition on the streets and sidewalks, too much human activity,” said Duran. “What happens when the three robots get hit by cars or buses or by a scooter? I can just imagine so many more difficulties that seem to outweigh placing our public streets and sidewalks at play.”

Likewise, Councilmember Lauren Meister also voted against it, believing the city’s infrastructure could not handle the robots on the crowded sidewalks. She suggested it would be more appropriate to operate in separate lanes such as the bike lanes.

Yola Dore standing next to a Postmates robot.

“Here we are the most pedestrian friendly city and we’re making it more difficult to be a pedestrian,” said Meister. “Until we answer the urban design question, it’s really not the right time for us to be testing this technology.”

Resident Yola Dore spoke strongly against the robots, explaining that access on the crowded sidewalks could be difficult for people with handicaps or limited mobility having to compete with the robots. She urged the Council protect the pedestrian experience.

“Is a delivery in our city with a device like that so important or are our citizens?” asked Dore.

Similarly, resident Manny Rodriguez agreed that protecting pedestrians was essential, adding if Postmates is worried about reducing vehicle exhausts, their delivery people could use bicycles for deliveries.

Resident Larry Block gets food deliveries from Postmates almost nightly, but doesn’t believe robots are a good idea. He suggested the pilot should be done somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, which is less dense,  before being introduced in West Hollywood. Block also suggested the robots could cause traffic snarls as looky-loo drivers slow down to look at the robots on the sidewalk.

Meanwhile Sol Yamani, who owns the Pink Dot store on Sunset Boulevard and contracts with Postmates, reported the hardest part of his business is getting delivery people.

“I will always say, if only I could have robots doing my deliveries,” said Yamani, who reported Pink Dot does about 300 food deliveries a day. “This is West Hollywood; this is the most cutting-edge city . . . I highly recommend that we be the first city to do this and do it right and set the tone like we always do.”  

Likewise, Genevieve Morrill, head of the West Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, said the plan was well thought out. “It’s our future and we should be at the lead and forefront of that,” Morrill said, adding that people looking at their phones while walking on the sidewalk and crossing streets are more dangerous to other pedestrians than these robots.

Several other commenters praised the innovative technology and urged embracing this future-thinking idea.

With the approval, the Council added a provision that city staff could shut down the pilot program instantly if problems arose. Likewise, if the pilot is a success, city staff can approve it to continue for the period until it comes back to the Council for review.

After the meeting, Ganapathy of Postmates said he was excited by the approval.  

“[West Hollywood] is the location we wanted to launch in from the outset, which is the reason we reached out to city,” Ganapathy explained to WEHOville. “We’re heartened that West Hollywood continues to be a beacon for smart ways to bring technology forward rather than shutting them out.”

Ganapathy explained that while West Hollywood will be the first citywide pilot program, the robots have been tested in several senior living centers. Likewise, the company has made over 2,000 robotic deliveries in the Hollywood area over the past six months.

He added Postmates is committed to getting this right and working out any kinks so it can potentially expand to other robotic possibilities in the future.

“If we don’t do this right, then this type of technology may never roll out, so we want to be doing well by our neighbors,” Ganapathy said.


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Jonathan Simmons
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Jonathan Simmons

What a good idea. I often feel so alone focusing on scateboarders, bicycles, scooters and homeless people taking 100% of my attention to be sure neither my dog or I get hit, pushed, kicked or come on the middle of east and west of the above coming together with me and my dog in the middle.

That’s one train wreck I would never want to be stuck in the middle of just walking on the sidewalks around my home.

Tom
Guest
Tom

If it doesn’t come to my door then it’s not delivery.

The Real Zam
Guest

Once again the NIMBYs and technophobic are fighting change in every possible way. I get that these things have a long way to go. I also get how issues are more likely to arise when dealing with those with various disabilities, including myself among the mobility impaired. Still, the fact that no more than 3 of these devices will operate simultaneously makes their potential impact negligible. I even have a mobility assistant robot that follows me around with 150lb of gear I need all the time & my service dog. When this technology eventually gets implemented en mass, it will… Read more »

JIm Nasium
Guest
JIm Nasium

You’re living in a fantasy Jetsons world.

Randy
Guest
Randy

Jim, we are about to enter one. And some people just don’t want to accept that.

Vigilant
Guest
Vigilant

Last night’s Student Council meeting included an agenda of “inane issues”. Since the Postmates Rolling Advertisement could not be safely demonstrated on the wood council chamber floor, it reasonably would not be safe to operate on the sidewalks impeding pedestrian traffic unless one was looking for a small spectacle of “chaos”. There is no way to measure the metrics Postmates assert. But there is an empirical way to measure the competence of the council members. Enraptured by consultant studies of renderings to mark the Gateways of the Sunset Strip, apparently landmark buildings don’t much count like in world class cities… Read more »

Richard K.
Guest
Richard K.

This robot is just a rolling advertisement for Postmates. Whether it has any goods inside of it or not (who would know) it will be will be merrily rolling along our busy sidewalks with lights flashing to remind pedestrians and shoppers who to call for deliveries.
West Hollywood is not a practical application for this concept. It’s better suited transporting items for a large corporation or factory, not a crowded shopping and bar district.

Eric Jon Schmidt
Guest

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Robots on sidewalks would be alright if they were security robots which record and report everything its sees and hears in real time. They already have them in areas of Las Vegas where I am currently. I realize some people might think it’s too much of a “big brother” measure, but considering the World in which we live now, there is no entitlement to Privacy in Public. Some of the hospitals in DTLA use them ( e.g. security Robots at California Hospital) now on their property. If the City Council is so married… Read more »

The Real Zam
Guest

What’s to say that these devices could not to both, even simultaneously? Irrespective of which, both technologies have a lot of overlap and the lessons learned from one technology will directly benefit the other. My personal mobility & cargo robots, even my car all have built in cameras and I can choose to keep that video if I make the request. I’ve even caught someone breaking into a neighbor’s car on camera and the recording led directly to an arrest.

Eric Jon Schmidt
Guest

I think it’s a good idea if you want to save money on tipping the delivery person, since they expect at least 30% to get good service now. But, for a majority of the City Council too be so reckless with public safety speaks volumes of what they think about us, the residents and visitors. There are some ideas that are just really bad. This is one of them. It seems that Residents are looked at as being in the way of the “Magnificent Money Maker” known as West Hollywood City Council and Management (my informed opinion). I would love… Read more »

Joshua88
Guest
Joshua88

I do not have text.
Eh…

Cool Guy 420
Guest
Cool Guy 420

If Postmates wants to use our sidewalks to make money, then the City of West Hollywood should be given equity in the company. Absolutely unacceptable

The Real Zam
Guest

They already use our streets, parking, & sidewalks for delivery by human. Transactions are also subject to sales tax & the restaurants are taxed just like any other business. If you want to charge them for use, simply purchase some land and charge them a toll for entering. For better or worse, transportation infrastructure is a public asset and available for businesses and individuals to use freely.

Alan Strasburg
Guest
Alan Strasburg

It’s time that someone starts speaking up for the rights of pedestrians in this “pedestrian-friendly” city. That moniker is a bunch of malarkey. We pedestrians have to dart around scooters, bikes, inattentive drivers and the puke stains from last night’s deluge of visitors from the provinces. It’s bad for an able-bodied pedestrian, but the pain is exacerbated when mobility is challenged. I just spent a week on crutches and in a boot after foot surgery–try it sometime–it will engender a new appreciation for what pedestrians go through on a daily basis. I’m still laughing at Lindsey’s quaint anecdote–let’s not make… Read more »

Here we go
Guest
Here we go

Oh, let the Weho Blue Hairs fire up with the negative comments.

Ajusted1
Guest
Ajusted1

It’s funny some of them are concerned about impeding pedestrians when half the bars have huge patios that have negated any widening of the sidewalks and they let a pocket park (aka homeless camp) be installed on the NE corner San Vicente and Sant Monica that added to the already very narrow sidewalk. On most weekend nights folks are having to walk in the street because it’s so congested. I don’t think a couple robots during the day are going to cause much issue – though no one has mentioned job lose/reduction due to these automated systems.

Kip Johnson
Guest
Kip Johnson

Yeah!! Another person is talking about the pocket park SMB and San Vicente. On weekends people jump and/or trip over those extensions into the once usable sidewalk or more often people just now walk in the bike lane right next to moving vehicles. I suppose it takes some serious injuries, or council/staff coming out at night to see reality before doing something.