Lawmakers push bill authorizing robot deliveries; 150 machines operating around the world

MADISON — A pair of state lawmakers tried to persuade a Senate committee Tuesday to approve a bill that would allow delivery robots to traverse Wisconsin sidewalks and crosswalks.

The measure would limit the robots to operating only on sidewalks and in crosswalks, impose an 80-pound weight limit as well as a 10 mph speed limit and require operators to control or monitor the devices. The bill would prohibit the robots from traveling in roadways and allow local governments to ban them if they so desire.

The bill's Republican authors, Sen. Chris Kapenga and Rep. Mike Kuglitsch, told the Senate government operations and technology committee that the machines offer an innovative, cost-effective solution to delivery hurdles in the last few miles. Authorizing the machines would signal Wisconsin is a technology leader in the Midwest, they added.

"We need to allow these vehicles on Wisconsin sidewalks and crosswalks," Kuglitsch said. "I believe it is our job as legislators to allow innovation and emerging technologies to prosper and be welcome in our state."

The robots are essentially rolling coolers loaded with cameras and sensors that can scan the environment. Starship Technologies, a European company, began manufacturing them as an option for handling food takeout and grocery delivery. An email alerts the customer when the robot reaches his or her door.

The machines weigh about 35 pounds, travel at a top speed of 4 mph and have a range of 2 to 3 miles. They can operate on their own — they're programmed to stop whenever something is directly in front of them — or with a human at the controls.

The robots have been delivering food in Estonia, Germany, Switzerland and the United Kingdom since last year. Pilot delivery programs began in Redwood City, California, and Washington, D.C., in February. Virginia and Idaho have passed legislation similar to the Wisconsin proposal authorizing the robots to operate on those states' sidewalks.

Starship Technologies spokesman David Catania said the company currently has about 150 machines operating around the world. They've traveled 30,000 miles without injuring anyone, he said.

The Wisconsin bill came about after Assembly Speaker Robin Vos saw a demonstration at a National Conference of State Legislatures meeting last year, Catania said. The speaker's staff inquired with the company about bringing the robots to Wisconsin, he said.

Republican Sen. Duey Stroebel, the committee chairman, said he liked the concept but questioned whether the legislation was really needed. Kapenga responded that state laws tend to become murkier as new technology emerges and he wants to make sure any delivery robot company has a clear idea of Wisconsin's legal landscape.

The hearing lasted less than 30 minutes. The panel wasn't scheduled to vote on the bill and no one spoke about the measure except for the authors and Catania.

Vos has identified the bill as one of Assembly Republicans' key initiatives this session. Asked about the bill's prospects in the Senate, Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald's spokeswoman, Myranda Tanck, said Fitzgerald hasn't had a chance to discuss the proposal with the full Republican caucus.