The potential opportunities and challenges of sidewalk robots: panelists offer diverse perspectives

screen capture of four speakers in Zoom panel discussion
Panel discussion: (from top left clockwise) Professors Ron Buliung, Hugh Liu, Matt Roorda, and Shauna Brail, “The Way Forward: Negotiating with robots in the public realm,” April 26, 2022. (screen capture)

Mobility Network presented “Negotiating with robots in the public realm” as part of The Way Forward panel discussion series on April 26, 2022. The session was hosted by Dr. Judy Farvolden, Executive Director, Mobility Network, and moderated by Hugh H.T. Liu, Professor and Associate Director of Graduate Studies, and Director of the Centre for Aerial Robotics Research and Education, Institute for Aerospace Studies, University of Toronto.

Three panelists with different fields of expertise discussed their research and perspectives on sharing our sidewalks with robots.

Quotes from the discussion

Shauna Brail is an associate professor at the Institute for Management & Innovation, University of Toronto Mississauga and a senior associate at the Innovation Policy Lab, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. In 2021 she co-wrote a report for Transport Canada on the state of autonomous cargo delivery technology, including both robots and drones, and the prospects for their future uses with a focus on the Canadian context.

She says, “The subject of robots is contentious. …We really do need to hear all of these perspectives in order to understand the opportunities and the challenges that robotic technology presents.”

“There are a wide range of benefits that robots can bring to society and to cities. Three benefits in particular are contactless delivery, benefits around equity, and the potential for reduced costs in terms of contactless delivery.

I think many people are very familiar with the challenges [of sidewalk robots]. The most significant one is the question of whether or not robots make public spaces less safe or less accessible for others already using them. Are our sidewalks wide enough? Are our curb cuts the right width and technical specifications to permit a robot to operate on them? We’ll talk about sidewalk safety, especially concerns for those using mobility devices including wheelchairs, walkers, strollers, and people with vision and hearing impairments. The speed of  the robot and the weight of the robots is another very significant issue when we think about safety and whether robots make public spaces less safe. There are legal and other questions around who and which vehicles have a right to use the sidewalk.  And thirdly, there are ethical issues and issues around surveillance, data collection, physical intrusiveness, the use of cameras on robots, who owns the data and the images that these robots are collecting and how is this data used.” – Professor Shauna Brail

Matthew Roorda is a professor and the associate chair at the Department of Civil & Mineral Engineering, University of Toronto, and Canada Research Chair in Freight Transportation and Logistics. He says, “I’ve done some work in the logistics side of it [sidewalk robots], optimization of their operations, dabbled a little bit in this field. But most interesting, maybe, is the recent laboratory experiments that we’ve been doing.”

“We’ve been working with a private sector partner in the courier industry and helping them investigate new technologies, new ways of operating, including things like cargo tricycles, combined mobile distribution centres, and so on. And sidewalk robots are one of their initiatives. I’m trying to help them out with  investigating what are the benefits and challenges that they might experience. Ruowei Li is in the audience—she’s the Master’s student that has been working in this laboratory with what we call a Follow Me robot. It’s a piece of technology that accompanies a courier. It follows them without a handle, so it’s like pulling a wagon with no handle. And there’s a lot of interesting reasons why this might be a useful technology.

My research focuses largely on finding alternatives to the status quo—status quo being truck deliveries primarily in medium size,  sometimes heavy duty, vehicles, sometimes cars, and looking at new technologies in the context of what they’re replacing as well. So there are certainly challenges and disbenefits of having trucks on our roads in downtown areas or where there are pedestrians and cyclists. There are safety issues with trucks, emissions from the diesel powered engines or the gasoline-powered engines, depending on what type of truck it is, and we try to evaluate the performance and some of the side effects of technologies in the context of what the alternatives are.” – Professor Matthew Roorda

Ron Buliung is a professor and the graduate chair at the Department of Geography & Planning, University of Toronto. He says, “I come to this work from a disability studies planning perspective, and I have several concerns.”

I started reflecting on ethical robotics or the ethics of robots, and so on and so forth, and to that end, I needed to remind myself that we’re talking here about the use of robots in a particular application, in a particular setting.

There are other contexts—medical, therapeutic, and other contexts—where we already have robotic technology doing some fairly interesting things.

I started asking some questions, like: What does a robot do? What can it do? What will it look like? and What capabilities would it have, for example, if designed from the start with disability in mind?

I was reminded here—Shauna mentioned equity and delivery, Matt mentioned climbing stairs—and it occurred to me, we haven’t even figured out how to make buildings accessible for people. Are we going to allow our conversation about robots and the delivery of goods to shape that conversation? That’s something that hadn’t even occurred to me. So I find that to be a fascinating moment in this discussion—and troubling at the same time, I think.

…What we don’t want, at the end of the day, is for the influx of robots into the public realm to become a disabling feature of our cities.” – Professor Ron Buliung

Want to hear more? Watch the full presentations & the panel discussion


About The Way Forward

The Way Forward banner image with title and Mobility Network logoResearchers from across U of T bring home the many ways mobility affects our lives in The Way Forward, a panel discussion series. Join the conversation!

All sessions take place on Tuesdays from 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. online, are free, and all are welcome. Registration is required.

An introductory overview is followed by short presentations, a moderated panel discussion, and audience Q & A. Events are recorded and shared.

Interested in more The Way Forward sessions?

See the complete Spring 2022 schedule for The Way Forward. Registration is open for all talks.

About Mobility Network at the School of Cities

Transportation and mobility touch virtually all aspects of our lives. The Mobility Network is a multidisciplinary, collaborative, and diverse network of mobility researchers that connects the University of Toronto’s exceptional strengths in data sciences, engineering and social sciences to address the technological, social, environmental and health disruptions facing society globally. Through interdisciplinary basic and applied research, Mobility Network will identify pathways to more equitable and efficient urban mobility, provide the evidence and decision-support needed for effective and lasting societal change, and have profound implications for individual well-being, resilient, sustainable and just urban growth and prosperity, and, ultimately, our planet’s future.

Mobility Network is an Institutional Strategic Initiative of the University of Toronto.