San Francisco Embeds Privacy in Delivery Robots Proposed Law

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By Joyce E. Cutler

San Franciscans are a step closer to robot-delivered burritos and pizzas after lawmakers moved forward on a proposed ordinance that seeks to address autonomous device privacy concerns.

The Board of Supervisors gave initial approval late Dec. 5 to a much-amended proposed ordinance to restrict how many and under what conditions autonomous devices can operate on city streets. The proposed ordinance passed unanimously and returns for a final vote Dec. 12 before heading to Mayor Ed Lee (D). Lee would have 10 days to sign the bill, veto it, or let the ordinance take effect without his signature.

The measure introduced by Supervisor Norman Yee (D) in May has gone through numerous changes and committee meetings before returning to the full board without objections from the business community or companies proposing to use delivery robots. The ordinance would require companies, such as Dispatch Robotics Inc., Starship Technologies Ltd., and Marble Robotics, to disclose data the devices collect, including GPS or photographic data scooped up as deliveries are made.

“These devices are collecting data, filming everything that goes along, and whatever the robot sees through the camera,” with each robot having two to three cameras, Yee told Bloomberg Law. “Then it dawned on us—they’re basically going around streets and recording folks’ behavior and so forth, and the questions of privacy sort of surface up to the top a little more” from the starting point of pedestrian safety.

“This particular legislation doesn’t solve all the problems in the future. All I’m trying to do is keep to our values, get ahead of the curve but understanding there are going to be new things coming up that we need to address,” Yee said.

The ordinance is referenced in a separate Yee-sponsored resolution for guiding principles to adopt future emerging technology regulations, including requiring informed consent from consumers and data sharing with the city. He plans to bring the resolution back to the board in early 2018. The goal, in part, is to avoid the bruising legal fights San Francisco had with Airbnb Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. over its requests for data about who is offering what in the sharing economy, Yee and Supervisor Aaron Peskin (D) said during the board meeting.

Test Run

Companies that obtain the limited number of permits to operate on city streets during a 180-day testing period must detail their privacy policies addressing how photographic video and other data will be used, stored, and safeguarded under the proposed ordinance.

Jim Lazarus, San Francisco Chamber of Commerce public policy senior vice president, told Bloomberg Law that the chamber supports the legislation.Companies involved in the new technology worked to educate San Francisco lawmakers about how delivery robots work.“Postmates led a coalition of robotics companies to make sure that the city of San Francisco could really understand the use and application of these tools for local retail businesses and it really moved the needle” away from initial discussion of a possible ban of delivery robots to a regulatory scheme, Vikrum Aiyer, head of public policy for delivery company Postmates Inc., told Bloomberg Law.

Dispatch Robotics Inc., Starship Technologies Ltd., and Marble Robotics didn’t immediately respond to Bloomberg Law’s email requests for comments.

Reference Points

San Francisco can look to the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which approved providing smart meter privacy protections to natural gas customers, for guidance, Dorothy Glancy, a Santa Clara University law professor who specializes in privacy and transportation, told Bloomberg Law. The CPUC in 2011 adopted privacy protections for electricity customers.

The city can also look to neighboring Walnut Creek, Concord, San Carlos, Foster City, Redwood City, and Sunnyvale, Calif., where Starship partnered with Postmates and another on-demand delivery service, DoorDash, to test food delivery by robots. Redwood City last month approved expanding autonomous delivery following a nine-month test.

This was an active year for laws covering autonomous delivery devices. Florida, Idaho, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin this year enacted laws permitting robot deliveries.

To contact the reporter on this story: Joyce E. Cutler in San Francisco at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Donald Aplin at

For More Information

The proposed ordinance, as approved at first reading, is available at

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