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Autonomous vehicles are banned from pedestrian pathways for the next year, but local residents could still see mini, remote-controlled bots out on the street making deliveries around town soon.

In recent months, autonomous, electrified delivery vehicles on city sidewalks and pedestrian paths of travel have prompted several members of the public to complain that the devices are obstructing sidewalks and creating difficulties for people who had to navigate around the devices. City staff recommended that council impose a year-long moratorium on autonomous delivery vehicles on pedestrian pathways so the city could study the subject and put forth regulations when the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic aren’t so prevalent.

But after spending a considerable amount of time discussing economic recovery strategies Tuesday, Councilman Ted Winterer said, “I’m a little hesitant to turn to a business that just started here and might potentially hire people and stimulate our economy and say: ‘Well, guess what? You got to wait for a year.’”

Councilmembers agreed with the sentiment and thought it was best to allow leeway for companies as long as they were to acquire a business license and ensure the bots would be controlled by humans and not act autonomously. But Mayor Kevin McKeown was adamant that the city’s highest priority was safety, and he wondered if the council and staff could guarantee no harm would come from the bots in the process of their deliveries.

The mayor also noted the council was responsible for being proactive, not reactive, but staff said the company has already operated bots in limited circulation in Santa Monica, and they were not aware of any particular injuries that have been incurred.

“I had a conversation with Councilmember Davis today, and she had seen them operating in the field — safely navigating a crosswalk on Main Street, maneuvering out of the way of pedestrians,” Winterer said, stating it may be beneficial to include the remote-controlled delivery bots in an upcoming zero-emissions pilot program that’s expected to launch in 2021.

“I was gonna start out saying I may be the only person who’s actually seen them in operation and I saw them twice,” Davis added as she detailed how the bots pulled over when they came across a skateboard, scooter wheelchair and heeded the right-of-way to pedestrians.

Davis said nobody knows when the pandemic will end and remote-controlled delivery seems like a good way to minimize contact.

“I’m fine with exempting piloted vehicles from the moratorium and leaving the moratorium in place for A.I.-operated vehicles because I don’t think that that’s a technology that’s ready for our streets yet,” she said.

Himmelrich asked councilmembers to consider how their actions will affect people who are currently doing deliveries who may lose their jobs because of these bots before a Dodgers’ victory sparked some confusion in the Zoom. But Winterer motioned to approve the moratorium on autonomous vehicles with two modifications. The first of which is a proposal that would allow human-piloted bots to act as delivery vehicles in the zero-emissions delivery zone, and the second is the moratorium on these such devices does not become effective until January 1 so the company that’s already deployed bots has a chance to continue operations until it enters into the pilot program on January 1.

As City Attorney George Cardona and councilmembers continued to hammer out the details of the emergency ordinance in a Word document on-screen, Cardona noted the city lacks a business license that is specific to this instance, so staff will have to work with operators of the remote-controlled bots before it can resume operations and become part of the pilot program.

“We can always come back and modify the terms of distance as circumstances change,” Cardona added, detailing the moratorium can be extended or bots can be allowed to enter other parts of the city.

Prior to the unanimous passage, McKeown took issue with companies who are operating in the city without a proper license and asked how the council can be better prepared for the new technologies and businesses, which have never before been thought of, coming to the Westside in the future.

Interim City Manager Lane Dilg commended the council for being nimble and allowing new technologies and economic opportunities to hit the streets of Santa Monica.

“So what I would say to all of those innovators who are out there and entrepreneurs is please contact our business license office and know that we want to work with you but we want to do it safely,” Dilg said. “So help us to help you by making your disruptive technology happen as quickly as possible — but without the kind of disruption that moves us backwards.”

Brennon@smdp.com