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Ana Jara for City CouncilTed Winterer for City CouncilJen Smith for School BoardCouncil Gives Nod to Delivery 'Bots'

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By Jorge Casuso

October 30, 2020 -- Autonomous delivery vehicles can continue scooting down Santa Monica sidewalks as long as they are controlled by a human, covered by a business license and abide by safety rules, the City Council decided Tuesday.

City Employees' Council Endorsements

The companies legally operating the remote controlled electronic devices -- which travel at speeds of no more than 3 mph scurrying around obstacles -- can then qualify to participate in a pilot program expected to kick off January 1.

Phil Brock for Council

Autonomous devices operated without human supervision by Artificial Intelligence (AI) would be banned under a one-year moratorium that takes effect immediately.

Oscar de la Torre for City Council

The new ordinance -- based on a similar law that recently went into effect in San Francisco -- was approved after remote controlled "bots" were spotted rolling around town, prompting complaints from several residents.

"The operation of such devices on sidewalks and pedestrian paths of travel without an adequate regulatory framework poses a risk to the public’s safety," staff wrote in a report to the Council.

"This absence of direct regulation and oversight presents a potential hazard for local pedestrians, bicyclists, scooter users, and drivers; threatens to clutter City sidewalks and crossings; and places an undue burden on City enforcement services."

Council members echoed the concerns but also noted the delivery services could create jobs and introduce a safe way to deliver goods during the ongoing coronavirus emergency.

Councilmember Ted Winterer said he didn't want to discourage "a business that just started here and might potentially hire people and stimulate our economy."

Councilmember Gleam Davis touted their ability to "minimize exposure" during the heath crisis. "The consensus is that (the coronavirus pandemic) is going to go on for some time," she said.

Councilmember Sue Himmelrich, however, worried that the devices -- which she said she has seen successfully used in hospitals -- "will affect people who are currently doing deliveries who will lose their jobs.

"I think that we need to consider some balance," Himmelrich said, "but the way the landscape is now at the moment, this is not our biggest problem."

The biggest problem, said Mayor Kevin McKeown -- who said he uses a bot occasionally at home -- is safety.

"I'd be very hesitant to lift and not impose a moratorium," McKeown said. "We have to be very careful we set an understandable process.

"Let's try to find a compromise that doesn't penalize innovation but also doesn't compromise responsibility," the mayor said.

The ordinance unanimously approved by the Council imposes safety requirements incorporated in the San Francisco ordinance.

They include requiring the devices to yield the right of way to humans, obey traffic signals and use lights at night. The ordinance also bars them from transporting waste and hazardous materials.

Winterer, who made the motion, said that fully autonomous vehicles should be barred until operators "get the kinks out of the AI system."

"We don't want them to learn on our sidewalks," he said.

McKeown noted that the autonomous delivery vehicles are only one of the high-tech devices that will eventually be sharing Santa Monica's streets with humans and traditional vehicles.

"This is going to happen to us again and again," he said. "New technologies will come to us."

To incorporate them, the mayor said, the City must exercise "nimbleness and creativity."

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