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Cities across the United States are facing a wave of urban robotic products that combine artificial intelligence with the basic elements of transportation technology. The firms that deploy these technologies intend to both disrupt and serve many markets with their products, including but not limited to the transportation of people and cargo, surveillance, security, entertainment, and the collection and use of vast troves of data from the sensing capabilities of their products. In the evolution of technology, however, automated vehicles, delivery robots, security robots, and follow-me drones or robots are not separate products; they represent one overall movement to combine basic technologies of mobility with modern sensors, machine learning, and data science, into robotics intended for use in urban settings. To the firms, cities are concentrated markets for services, testbeds for imperfect artificial intelligence, collections of persons to engage in beta-testing of their robotics, and public spaces to be shaped in their interest to ease access to public rights-of-way and embed intelligent communication systems in urban space. To the cities, urban robotics foster technological optimism that is often unrealistic for either the technology or the economics of the firm, and their design and deployment poses new hazards for people in public space and private life.

As robots continue to enter the public rights-of-way in cities across the country, lawmakers need to find ways to regulate these technologies in the public interest. The old Facebook mantra of “move fast and break things” becomes even more concerning when the technology in question has a physical presence and can actually break things or harm people. In addition, the introduction of connected, mobile, sensing robots into public space on a mass scale accelerates already shifting norms around privacy and surveillance in public places. Policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels are taking a variety of approaches to regulate urban robots with these issues in mind. While some may call the diversity of approaches an impediment to innovation, we argue that at this stage of technological development, the laboratory of democracy offers the best possible path forward to regulate this emerging technology in the public interest. Therefore, we argue that broad federal preemption of robotics technologies, like autonomous vehicles, is premature. Cities are in fact the best suited sites of experimentation for autonomous vehicles, drones, and other urban robots, and city lawmakers should be allowed autonomy in their effort to regulate the design and deployment of urban robotics in public space. States and the federal government should provide technical and regulatory expertise and a backstop against a race to the bottom, but their orientation should be to work with cities, not against them.