A robot-delivery startup helped write state laws that are locking out competition

Two U.S. states — Virginia and Idaho — have now passed laws to allow delivery robots to operate statewide.

The new laws, both of which were passed this year, were written with the help of Starship Technologies, a delivery-robot company based in Estonia that was founded by Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, two of the co-founders of Skype.

While Starship isn’t currently working in Virginia or Idaho, the company can now legally operate its robot in those states — without a person controlling it — on sidewalks and crosswalks. Starship’s 40-pound robots are designed to deliver things like meals, groceries and other on-demand goods. Similar legislation is now being proposed in Wisconsin.

But other robot-delivery companies might not be able to take advantage of the new laws.

That’s because the policies that Starship has helped to champion only permit robots under a certain weight to operate autonomously in each state — and Starship’s potential competitors don’t all make the cut. In Virginia, the law states that ground robots have to weigh under 50 pounds to operate legally. In Idaho, the weight limit is 80 pounds.

But Marble, a robot-delivery company that started bringing people take-out in San Francisco earlier this month, uses a rover that weighs more than 80 pounds. (The company wouldn’t specify the exact weight of its robot.) Another ground robot — the Gita rover from the makers of Vespa — is designed to follow a person around to carry their bags, and weighs 70 pounds. Though Gita isn’t necessarily for making deliveries, it is supposed to be able to rove autonomously and carry things in areas it has already mapped.

“Marble’s robots are built around the form factor of modern-day electric mobility scooters,” CEO Matt Delaney said in a statement to Recode. Delaney said he doesn’t think the weight limits that are being written in the new statewide robot laws are reasonable. Marble is currently in talks with the San Francisco City Council around future robot-delivery regulations in the city, according to a company spokesperson.

Starship says it didn’t intend to push for laws that keep competitors out, even if that is what’s happening now.

“When we launched our first public affairs efforts, our competitors were still in stealth mode. We still do not know their operational parameters,” Allan Martinson, Starship’s chief operating officer, said in an email.

Martinson says that the weight limits are “not random but based on safety estimates.”

“The 50-pound limit came about in discussion about what would be the most approachable and safest route that a pedestrian would feel safe with this robot traveling next to them,” said Rep. Ron Villanueva from Virginia, one of the lawmakers who championed the state’s new robot policy.

In Wisconsin, a bill about legal operation of autonomous ground-delivery robots is now in committee discussions, and currently proposes an 80-pound weight limit.

A spokesperson for state Sen. Chris Kapenga, one of the sponsors of the Wisconsin bill that’s making its way through the state legislature, said that they arrived at the 80-pound weight limit by doubling the weight of Starship’s robot.

Both the Virginia and Idaho laws, as well as the Wisconsin bill, have provisions that allow for municipalities to change the law to meet their local needs, like if the robot isn’t allowed on the sidewalks during certain times of the day, or if a city wants to change the weight limit.

 

But creating a local exception would require city officials to make that decision, and that could be a whole process itself.

Starship is not currently operating in any of the states where it has worked to pass the robot laws. But a spokesperson from Senator Kapenga’s office told Recode that he couldn’t see why the company would be coming to Wisconsin if it didn’t expect to eventually bring its technology to the state.

None of the states that have so far passed laws permitting the use of autonomous robots are major population centers. But if Starship continues to try to pass more laws in more states across the country — like the bill that was filed in Florida with a 50-pound weight limit — Starship’s competitors might want to start pushing back.