Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance Update
United for a Barrier-Free Society for All People with Disabilities
More Media Coverage on the Dangers to People with Disabilities that Robots on Sidewalks Would Pose
December 13, 2021
1. Disability Objections to Allowing Robots on Public Sidewalks Get More Media Attention
The Saturday, December 11, 2021 Toronto Star’s Business Section included an excellent, detailed article on disability objections to allowing robots on sidewalks. Read that article, below.
Before Toronto City Council votes on a proposal to ban robots from Toronto sidewalks, we remind you that it would really help if you urge Toronto Mayor John Tory and Toronto City Council members to vote for that ban. Here are the email addresses for all members of Toronto City Council, which you can copy and paste right into an email:
firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Read AODA Alliance Chair David Lepofsky’s December 9, 2021 guest column in the Toronto Star’s Metroland newspapers about the dangers that robots on sidewalks pose for people with disabilities.
2. Reminder to Sign Up to Tell Ottawa’s Accessibility Advisory Committee at its December 14, 2021 Virtual Meeting to Oppose Electric Scooters
It is not too late! Sign up to tell the Ottawa Accessibility Advisory Committee at its December 14, 2021 virtual meeting that it should call on Ottawa City Council not to allow e-scooters, whether privately owned, or rented, in public spaces. Information on this meeting, and on how to sign up for it, is available in the December 10, 2021 AODA Alliance Update.
At this meeting, we will recommend that the Ottawa Accessibility Advisory Committee pass a motion such as this:
“The Ottawa Accessibility Advisory Committee recommends as follows:
- a) The City of Ottawa not conduct any more pilots that allow electric scooters to be ridden in any public places in Ottawa, whether the e-scooter is owned by or rented by the rider.
- b) The City of Ottawa should not lift the legal ban now in effect on riding e-scooters in public places.
- c) The City of Ottawa should enforce the legal ban on riding e-scooters in public places.”
3. Electric Scooters and Sidewalk Robots Are Illustrations of the Ford Government Failing to Show Strong Leadership on Accessibility for 2.6 Million Ontarians with Disabilities
The cruel fact that people with disabilities must battle at the local municipal level against new barriers like e-scooters and robots on sidewalks is due to the Ford Government failing to show leadership on disability accessibility. This is part of a bigger picture.
A jaw-dropping 1,047 days have now passed since the Ford Government received the blistering final report of the Independent Review of the implementation and enforcement of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act that was conducted by former Lieutenant Governor David Onley. It found that Ontario is full of “soul-crushing barriers” facing people with disabilities, and that progress on accessibility has been “glacial.” It concluded that the AODA’s promise of an accessible province for Ontarians with disabilities is nowhere in sight.
Read the AODA Alliance’s November 22, 2021 letter to Ontario’s political party leaders. It sets out the election pledges on accessibility for people with disabilities that we seek in the June 2022 Ontario election.
Toronto’s pink delivery robots have been pulled off the streets and may be banned next week — but is that the right move?
By Sean Frankling
Toronto Star December 11, 2021
Tiny Mile has pulled its pink robots off Toronto’s sidewalks, and they may be banned for good next week. But is that the right move for the city?
David Lepofsky uses a white cane as he walks to sweep the path in front of him for tripping hazards.
The retired lawyer, who teaches law part time at the University of Toronto’s Osgoode Hall, has been blind much of his life.
Lepofsky, who is also chair of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance, learned to navigate Toronto’s streets when they were relatively clear of today’s modern distractions.
An explosion in construction sites and, more recently, sidewalk patios – a pandemic city initiative that permitted restaurants to expand outdoor dining areas onto sidewalks – have meant an increase in obstacles for Lepofsky as of late.
It’s a frustrating step back for the accessibility advocate. “These are new barriers that humans are creating in a society that’s meant to be getting more accessible,” he says.
At least one of those new barriers – remotely piloted delivery robots – will face a vote on its fate at Toronto City Hall next week.
In response to the concerns of advocates like Lepofsky, the Toronto Accessibility Advisory Committee is calling fora ban on delivery robots and their ilk, with city council to vote on the recommendation Dec. 15.
“It’s great that this is moving up to city council on a recommendation that these be banned,” says Lepofsky. “It says to the province, ‘You should put the breaks on this. This is not such a good idea.'”
While disability advocates such as Lepofsky are rooting for the vote to succeed, robotics industry experts are looking for solutions beyond an outright ban.
Meanwhile, the owners of Toronto’s only existing robot-delivery service – Tiny Mile – fear the ban would close their doors for good.
Tiny Mile’s CEO, Ignacio Tartavull, hears Lepofsky’s concerns. On Thursday, the company announced it has temporarily taken its robots off Toronto’s streets while it awaits the outcome of the vote.
Lepofsky has already spent the last couple of years campaigning against an Ontario government pilot project that allows municipalities to decide for themselves whether to allow e-scooters on public roads and sidewalks, which he calls a nightmare for people with disabilities.
He wants them banned province-wide, not just in some cities.
“At any time there could be a silent menace racing at me at 20 km/h. A sidewalk that was safe becomes one where I could go flying over.”
He wasn’t expecting to have to arm himself against another pilot project – at least, not so soon.
But then came the robots.
In November, the Ministry of Transportation concluded public consultation on a proposed 10-year pilot project that would allow companies across Ontario to operate so-called micro-utility devices – autonomous or remotely piloted robots – on public sidewalks for purposes like delivery service and snow shovelling.
The pilot, which doesn’t yet have a date set to proceed, is meant to assess the safety of integrating this new technology into the urban environment.
It would require human oversight of the robots, but not a person on-site. Instead, a remote operator or supervisor could watch via camera feed.
The robots would be subject to a speed limit of 10 km/h on sidewalks and 20 km/h in bike lanes, and must weigh less than 125 kg and be no more than 74 cm wide, though automated snowplows would have no size restrictions.
The pilot would also require operators to clearly label the company’s name on their robots, provide constant human oversight via camera with a safe-stop feature, mandatory collision reporting, and a minimum $25-million worth of general liability insurance for participating firms.
Municipalities would have the option to opt in – or out – the logic being that each local government knows their infrastructure best. Next week’s vote will determine whether to ban these robots before the pilot ever takes effect here.
Lepofsky says this approach just fragments a discussion that should be consistent across the province.
“That means that people with disabilities go from having a provincial rule to having to fight in one municipality after another.”
While he’s skeptical that the technology behind remotely piloted robots is up to the task of safely sharing the sidewalk with pedestrians, it’s the challenge of regulating them that has Lepofsky most concerned.
When a cyclist or an e-scooter rider gets in an accident or breaks a rule, the person liable is right there on the vehicle, says Lepofsky.
With an unmanned robot, the person responsible may not even be present, making it difficult to track them down, or even to proceed with a lawsuit, he says, stressing it’s too difficult to hold operators responsible in the event their robot causes an accident.
“The law isn’t just what’s on the books, it’s what you can enforce,” says Lepofsky.
Many experts in the robotics industry agree with his concerns, even if they don’t share his enthusiasm for an outright ban.
“(Robots) are a new source of friction, and there’s bound to be conflict,” says Shauna Brail, who just completed a report for Transport Canada looking into Canada’s policy preparedness for the rise of robot-based delivery services.
Brail, a professor of urban planning and economic development at the University of Toronto, says while it’s important to investigate what new technologies can do to improve urban life, those uses have to be done in balance with the normal use of public property.
“They’re an incompatible use if they make the sidewalk unstable for a person,” she says.
Brail’s report examined regulations governing robot delivery in Toronto, Calgary, San Francisco and a dozen other state and city jurisdictions in the U.S.
The key take-aways?
First, robots are already out there making deliveries in many of the jurisdictions they scanned.
Second; the laws around their use across Canada and the U.S. are well behind the technology, particularly in Toronto.
Before the ministry’s proposed pilot, the city had no regulations for sidewalk robots at all. They’ve been operating in a grey area – not illegal, but not allowed, either, says Brail.
And in the absence of government guidance, it’s been the companies building the robots that have led the drive to regulate them, she says.
Toronto startup Tiny Mile’s pink robots have been rolling along downtown streets daily for about a year, delivering takeout food, among other items.
A suite of cameras feed data to a remote driver who steers the robots with the aid of an on-board collision-avoidance system that detects when a robot is approaching an obstacle and automatically stops before it can hit it.
So far, the company says, in the “tens of thousands of kilometres” travelled, it’s had no reports of accidents. Tiny Mile has up to 20 robots on the streets at any given time.
“Tiny Mile is keenly interested in working with the accessibility community, hence we are calling out people who will be interested in shaping our technology with their immediate expertise and experience to help us not only make our robots safer for our community, but also greatly benefit people with disabilities,” the company said on its Instagram page in making the announcement Thursday.
Tartavull told the Star his robots put safety first, using their sensors and safety software to ensure the human operators can identify people moving slowly or using mobility devices and steer clear to give them plenty of space.
His robots’ low weight (4.5 kg), and easy speed (6 km/h), says Tartavull, pose no threat to pedestrians, a claim he says he tested personally by crashing them repeatedly into himself to make sure they couldn’t injure him.
“I went to the point of making myself the crash dummy. We don’t put anything on the street we don’t trust.”
Lepofsky isn’t buying it. No amount of testing and avoidance can guarantee a robot won’t become a tripping hazard, he says, especially if one breaks down in a public walkway.
While Tartavull says it’s inevitable that the robots will sometimes break down – he estimates it happens once every two or three months – the small service area allows for a team to pick up the out-of-commission robot within minutes, he says.
Tartavull says any conversation about regulating robots on city streets must take into account what they can offer to business and society.
Far from just being an obstacle, he says, “(robots) can be amazing for the disabled. It’s 2 a.m., it’s freezing cold. Wouldn’t you rather pay 50 cents for a robot to bring you those drugs you need from the pharmacy (than go out there yourself)?”
He argues that robotic delivery offers solutions to help with everything from traffic congestion to greenhouse gas emissions to the high cost of services like Uber Eats.
“It’s actually firms that are driving the initiative to regulate,” Brail says. But it’s not in Canadians’ best interest to let them lead the whole conversation, she adds.
“It can give a very one-sided perspective on what regulation should look like,” Brail says. “It needs to be a conversation about what does society need. And you need government to lead that.”
Queen’s University professor Joshua Marshall, who has spent his career developing robots for deployment alongside human workers in mining and industrial settings, agrees that testing should happen before a new technology goes into the real world, not after.
Marshall says engineers have a responsibility to consult everyone who might be affected before any machine goes into a workplace or into the public. “These people need to be at the table. We need all stakeholders involved. If there’s a problem, we need to identify it early, before something happens that we don’t want.”
Marshall also stresses the importance of rigorous testing and development for robots being used around pedestrians, starting with computer simulations and then working up to controlled environments mimicking real-world conditions.
But while the Ministry of Transportation say it is incorporating the feedback from the public consultation phase and considering adding more rules, the pilot project doesn’t lay out any requirements for how much testing and consultation companies must do before they put their robots on the streets.
“I think the problem is that you have this app development attitude of ‘moving fast and breaking things’ that’s been elevated almost to a religion among some technologists,” says Jason Millar, a University of Ottawa professor and holder of the Canada research chair in robotics.
But we can’t afford to be so loose when talking about technology that has a physical presence, he says.
“An app isn’t going to break down and leave a couple-hundred-pound impediment in the sidewalk.”
This is one reason Marshall and Millar agree on the need for Canada to develop a national strategy on robotics to match the Pan-Canadian AI Strategy announced in 2017 to be led and developed by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.
The AI strategy lays out ways to attract researchers, foster collaboration and educate the public, aimed at making Canada a leader in the emerging field of artificial intelligence development. But it also creates a framework to educate policy-makers to lead discussions on the ethical and social issues that come with the technology.
As Marshall describes it, a national robotics strategy would need to follow the AI strategy’s lead: planning for the re-skilling necessary as automation gets integrated into life and workplaces, while also leading the conversation toward industry-wide standards for safety, testing and stakeholder consultation.
“We need to be thinking about how can (disability advocates) elevate a concern to get meaningful, transparent answers from the companies that are developing these technologies,” says Millar.
A proper approach should create standards at the national level so when concerned citizens like Lepofsky speak out, their voices join a unified conversation, not just a local disagreement, he says.
For Tiny Mile, says CEO Tartavull, the future hinges on the outcome of Toronto city council’s vote.
“If we get banned, we won’t have money to move to any other city. So that would be the end of Tiny Mile, unfortunately.”