Food Delivery Robots Pulled From Pitt Campus After Backlash About Mobility

Oct 22, 2019

The University of Pittsburgh has pulled experimental food delivery robots off its campus after just a few weeks of use on Oakland’s streets.

Pitt doctoral student and wheelchair user Emily Ackerman said on Monday that she got trapped on Forbes Avenue as traffic approached because a Starship Technologies robot was blocking the only accessible entrance to the sidewalk.

"It was really bizarre to realize that a non-sentient thing was putting me in danger and making me feel I was helpless," Ackerman said. "I think I was just laughing at it like, oh cool, this is my life right now."

Ackerman was able to maneuver around the robot, but her tweets about the incident went viral, and got the attention of Pitt, Starship, and city government.

"We've asked Starship to pause testing to review the technology further and ensure everyone's safety," said Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick.

City of Pittsburgh spokesperson Tim McNulty said the Mayor's Office and the Department of Mobility and Infrastructure reached out to Starship with concerns about access to ramps.

"We're glad that operations were suspended while the issue is being studied," McNulty said.

Disability rights advocate Alisa Grishman said she also had a negative experience with Starship robots before they were pulled from the streets. Earlier this month, she was traveling up Forbes Avenue in her wheelchair when a robot stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, with no way for her to get around it.

"It waited through about three [traffic] light cycles, so it was clearly stuck," Grishman said. "So I had to backtrack and find a piece of the sidewalk that was lower cut, and just bounce down into the street to get around it."

In a statement, Starship Technologies said it reviewed footage from the Monday incident with Ackerman and dispute that she was impeded from getting on the sidewalk.

"We take matters like this very seriously and have made an update to the mapping at that particular intersection as an added precaution to ensure that additional room is added."

Starship Technologies said autonomous delivery has the potential to help people with disabilities in getting food and packages, which Ackerman agreed with.

"I would just like to see more testing before they're deployed," Ackerman said.

Grishman said there need to be better policies in place on things that take up space on the sidewalk.

"We have all these wonderful bike lanes so that bikes don't go on the sidewalk," Grishman said. "And yet now we're cluttering it up with robots."