New Pennsylvania Law Legalizes Autonomous Delivery Robots

via mohamed mahmoud hassan

A Pennsylvania state law which was passed in November of 2020 went into effect in January and legalizes autonomous delivery robots. The new law amends the Vehicle Code to allow for the operation of an automated or remote operated personal delivery device on a roadway or pedestrian area to deliver goods from business to business or a business to residence.

The new law allows autonomous drones to move on sidewalks, trails, and roads, and they will be technically considered “pedestrians” under the law. This change adds Pennsylvania to the group of 12 other states where autonomous delivery is legal, although the state’s law is one of the least restrictive regarding these sidewalk robots. The bots must meet certain requirements such as a maximum top speed of 12 mph in a pedestrian area, 25 mph on a roadway, and a load limit of 550 pounds. In comparison, Washington state personal delivery devices are only allowed to carry up to 120 pounds, and the 12mph speed limit is the fastest only behind Florida’s 15 mph limit.

There are also strict permit requirements for companies to meet in order to employ these robots in Pennsylvania. Companies must first file an operational plan for its personal delivery devices and further must create a detailed plan for what will happen when the bots are involved in accidents. Applicants must also provide proof of liability insurance coverage. Finally, applicant companies must create an educational plan to increase public awareness about PDD safety. 

Companies like Amazon and FedEx have been pushing for laws such as this. The advantages behind autonomous delivery include a reduction in the need for large, emission-heavy trucks to move in crowded cities and a reduction in the number of delivery drivers needed. 

However, concerns have been raised about sharing a sidewalk with these bots. For example, Eric Boerer of bike-pedestrian advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh says 12 mph is “extremely fast” for traveling on the sidewalk, considering the average walking speed for pedestrians is about 3 or 4 mph. Opposition has also arisen from labor unions such as the Teamsters, who advocate in concern for the jobs that may be taken by this technology. The National Association of City Transportation Officials has also issued a “Blueprint for AutonomousUrbanism” which calls for more thought about adding self-driving robots to our streets. In relevant part, the report states that “Automation without a comprehensive overhaul of how our streets are designed, allocated, and shared will not result in substantive safety, sustainability, or equity gains.”

The implementation of autonomous delivery robots is littered with legal concerns, many of which are not addressed in the recently-passed bill. To demonstrate, because these robots are considered pedestrians, questions remain on how the right-of-way applies when a delivery bot collides with another motor vehicle. Additionally, when the bots are traveling on the shoulder of roads or the berm near a highway, they can travel at the speed of a car or truck. Attorneys will be faced with a host of interesting new issues especially when accidents injure other pedestrians.

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