Tech founders take their self-driving food-delivery robots out of San Francisco to focus on cities where they feel more welcome

Facebook/Starship TechnologiesSan Francisco has all but banned delivery robots.
  • In San Francisco, people are fed up with startups trying to disrupt transit.
  • As a result, San Francisco officials last year passed some of the US’s most restrictive regulations for delivery robots.
  • The founders of Starship Technologies say the company has pulled its robots from San Francisco to focus on cities where they’re welcome.

Before electric scooters swept the streets and footpaths of San Francisco, the robots invaded.

Beginning in 2016, companies like Marble and Starship Technologies started road testing self-driving delivery robots that ferry food and groceries to a customer’s door. These bots promised to bring convenience for city dwellers and reduce the number of delivery vehicles on the road.

But San Francisco threw the brakes on delivery robots. In December, city officials passed some of the US’s most restrictive regulations on delivery robots.

Starship’s founders, Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis, both of whom previously helped launch Skype, say their robots have left San Francisco to focus on cities where they’re welcome.

“There’s only one San Francisco – there are many more cities that are welcoming our robots and that want to work with us,” Heinla, Starship’s CEO, told Business Insider.

He added, “So for us, the situation in San Francisco is a non-issue.”

The city of San Francisco often feels like a sandbox for Silicon Valley’s transit innovation. Over the past few years, ride-hailing cars, self-driving delivery robots, and electric scooters have spread across the city with little regard, critics argue, for the people who share the road.

Take the electric scooters, for example. Companies like Bird and LimeBike let people reserve a scooter from a smartphone app, ride for a small fee, and leave it wherever to be claimed by the next rider. There are no docks, meaning the scooters can be tossed anywhere.

Since March, three startups have rolled out hundreds of electric scooters in downtown San Francisco. They arrived before the city adopted any regulations to govern them. Now, those startups are battling with local authorities for recognition as a legitimate mode of transport.

Spin electric scooter san franciscoFacebook/spinridesElectric scooters are common sights on the streets and footpaths of San Francisco.

The situation bears some resemblance to the controversy around delivery robots last year.

Starship – which is venture-backed by Mercedes-Benz’s parent company, Daimler AG – announced it would start road testing in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2016. The startup paired up with the delivery giant DoorDash to make deliveries in Redwood City, California, and Washington, DC.

Last year, Starship’s competitor Marble unleashed a fleet of self-driving delivery robots to take over some of the work done by human couriers for the Eat24 delivery service in San Francisco.

Some San Francisco residents began sending photos to their local officials of the robots hogging the footpaths. A group of activists for seniors and people with disabilities was among the opponents.

“Footpaths, I believe, are not playgrounds for the new remote-controlled toys of the clever to make money and eliminate jobs,” Lorraine Petty, an activist with San Francisco Senior and Disability Action, told The Guardian’s Julia Carrie Wong in December. “They’re for us to walk.”

City officials responded with new regulations. In December, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors capped the number of delivery robots in the city at nine and confined robots to industrial areas where few people live. The robots must also be accompanied by a human.

By March, no startup had secured a permit for road testing, because the city had not yet offered them. The board voted to begin the permitting process.

Marble declined to comment for this story.

Starship technologies doordash delivery robotsStarship TechnologiesStarship plans to roll out 1,000 delivery robots by the end of the year.

Friis told Business Insider that Starship had no robots in testing in San Francisco and no immediate plans to launch there.

“We do not have any sort of predatory approach by going into a city and deploying,” Friis said. “If we are not welcomed there, we are not operating.”

Starship appears to be doing fine without San Francisco’s approval. Its robots are already operating in other cities in the Bay Area, including Palo Alto and San Jose, as well as some in Europe.

Last month, Starship announced its first large-scale deployment on corporate and academic campuses across the US and Europe. Its robots started delivering items, from food to office supplies, at Intuit’s campus in Mountain View, California. The company plans to roll out 1,000 vehicles by the end of the year.

Friis said Starship remained focused on building a superior service. Its engineering team is always fine-tuning the robots to “coexist nicely with pedestrians, to be graceful in how they give way,” he said.

“We obviously believe that we create a great service,” Friis said. “And I think it’s very simple in the end. If that’s the case, then it will be welcomed.”

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