“Stuff of the Jetsons” – The Rise of Micromobility and Robotics

July 19, 2022

The world of personal mobility is changing. As countries seek to reduce carbon emissions and cut down on vehicular congestion in their cities, escooters, autonomous delivery robots, and drones (collectively, “micromobility”) have grown in popularity as new clean-energy personal mobility devices. According to the Pew Center, more than 30% of the world’s population lives in cities that are inhabited by more than one million people. Seeking to capitalize on this clean-energy movement in large urban markets, micromobility startups have raised more than $5.7 billion in funding in the last seven years, led by investment in autonomous delivery robots. Market analysts who have followed these trends project that the micromobility sector will be valuated at $300 billion to $500 billion by 2030. In the Automotive and Mobility Industry Group at Morgan Lewis, our lawyers are tracking these industry metrics as well as the current and future regulatory landscape for micromobility devices.

  • Micromobility plays an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector. For short-distance travel, which comprises the majority of vehicular trips in the United States and the European Union, escooters and electric bicycles are increasingly becoming “go-to” primary methods of transportation in large urban commutations. In addition to reducing carbon emissions from personal cars, this change in behavior also serves as a valuable testing ground to see whether people are ready to reduce their dependence on personal cars and treat micromobility devices and autonomous vehicles as equally important extensions of the personal mobility paradigm.
  • At the federal level, the Biden Administration’s signature Build Back Better infrastructure program encourages investment in the micromobility sector to rethink the movement of people in urban markets and how to make the street safer and more accessible for micromobility devices. Major cities began experimenting with closing off roadways to allow more pedestrian and micromobility vehicles during COVID-19. By the end of 2021, New York City closed more than 100 miles of streets to vehicular traffic in the five boroughs, with more than half of them remaining closed. San Francisco also tried implementing “slow streets” to limit traffic during the pandemic, with varied results and many reopening after a mixed public response. Philadelphia is experimenting with developing a third lane dedicated to micromobility vehicles, which has been installed on Market Street between the University of Pennsylvania’s campus and City Hall.
  • Escooter trips rose to 152 million in 2021, a 24% increase from the previous year. From 2019 to 2020, there was a 60% increase. That growth is expected to continue, and many states and cities are beginning to incorporate escooters into city planning decisions and regulations. There is already some form of escooter regulation in 46 states and Washington, DC. However, the federal regulatory oversight of escooters is still something of an open question. In 2005, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued draft guidance on two- or three-wheeled escooters, which stated that if an escooter is designed for “on-road” use and has the capability of reaching speeds in excess of 20 mph, it would be regulated as a “motor vehicle” under applicable NHTSA safety regulations. However, if an escooter for “on-road” use cannot attain 20 mph, it is not a “motor vehicle” and it would be regulated by the US Consumer Products Safety Commission.
  • In the last four years, micromobility companies have invested in the development of autonomous delivery robots, known as personal delivery devices (PDDs), that have proliferated, in particular, on college campuses and in tech-forward cities such as Ann Arbor, Michigan. PDDs are an important part of autonomous vehicle systems manufacturers’ portfolios because it allows them to develop autonomous driving architecture that could be used as components in autonomous vehicle systems designed for motor vehicles.
  • Twelve states, including Washington, DC, have enacted PDD legislation and four more states have introduced PDD bills that are pending before congressional bodies across the country. In most states, PDDs are treated as a form of “pedestrians” and can operate on sidewalks, crosswalks, and certain roads to deliver items to consumers without causing vehicular congestion on streets. Many state PDD statutes require active human observation or oversight to monitor the PDD or rovers’ autonomous driving systems.
  • During COVID-19, PDDs exploded in popularity on college campuses as a way to reduce the number of students and faculty in dining halls at the same time because the PDDs were able to deliver food to their dormitories or offices. Even when colleges returned to more normal operations, the demand for PDD food deliveries continued to grow, and this technology became marketed by colleges as a differentiator in prospective student recruitment. But the growth has caused legal challenges for university users, including privacy concerns around the type of data collected by third-party software providers and concerns regarding the storage of short-term videos on the robots and where and how to safely charge and store the vehicles (commonplace issues and potential development areas for electric vehicle infrastructure).
  • Delivery by drones is in a more nascent state as developers wade through aerospace infrastructure considerations and federal and state regulatory issues. While many states and municipalities have their own regulations, drone operation always requires compliance with FAA regulations. Both FAA and commercial pilot programs remain works in progress. Further development, both regulatory and technical (e.g., weight and capacity to navigate urban areas), are matters that will be the subject of ongoing attention.

For more information, please see the slides from All Things Autonomous—Regulatory and Commercial Considerations for Delivery Robots (On and Off campus), Escooters, and Drones, which was presented as part of Morgan Lewis’s Automotive Hour Webinar Series.