Since March 2020, Starship’s food delivery robots have provided a new way for students to get on-campus food in Bowling Green. The university was the first in the state to authorize the use of autonomous food delivery providers, and has since executed many deliveries to Falcons. But the small robots have to navigate sidewalks and cross streets like any other pedestrian and are prone to accidents too.
“It looked like a little kid. Honest to God, It just darted out into the street,” Edward “Uncle Ed” Lavelle said. Lavelle, a semi-truck driver, got into an accident with a robot and was instantly worried because his driver's license means the world to him, he said.
Lavelle lives in Bowling Green and had seen the robots while riding his bike through town, but did not know much about them.
“I stopped and stood on my truck step to see what happened and realized it was one of the robots. It looked like a confused animal. It kind of went back and forth for a little before eventually going on it’s way away. It was the strangest thing,” Lavelle said.
Unsure of what to do, Lavelle called the Bowling Green Police Department to alert them of what had occurred. He says that the officer was also unsure of what to do, an issue created from the robots not having any contact information on them.
The officer told Lavelle that he would contact him the next day with more information but he never heard back. He wonders if his truck being at a tall height made it more difficult for the robot to notice him.
A public records request to the City of Bowling Green identified Lavelle and one other individual, Casey Schutt, for getting into accidents with the robots since their implementation last March.
Schutt was contacted for an interview but denied the request, while her step-father, Billy Walters, confirmed the accident. Lavelle’s accident occurred at the intersection of Wooster Street and Thurstin Avenue, while Schutt’s was at the intersection of Ridge Street and Main Street.
The robots do not have a phone number on them to call for immediate help in case of an accident, but have an email address directing people to their website.
Under the FAQs on the company website it notes, "Our priority is the safety and security of the communities we operate in. Our robots operate in a safe and non-hazardous manner so as not to endanger pedestrians, cyclists and other lawful users of public space and comply with traffic and pedestrian control devices, signals and signs.”
Bowling Green State University’s introduction of the robots, “The robots use a combination of sophisticated machine learning, artificial intelligence and sensors to travel on sidewalks and navigate around obstacles. The computer vision-based navigation helps the robots to map their environment to the nearest inch. The robots can cross streets, climb curbs, travel at night and operate in both rain and snow. A team of humans can also monitor their progress remotely and can take control at a moment’s notice.”
According to BGSUDining.com “Depending on the time of year, there can be anywhere from 25 robots up to 65.” The robots go up to 4 mph and can travel anywhere a pedestrian can.
Autonomous robots are gaining popularity because of the wide range of products they can deliver. They can be used for food deliveries from restaurants and grocery stores.
It doesn’t just have to be food deliveries, Starship can also take packages to “make local delivery faster, smarter and more cost-efficient,” according to its website.
The usage of autonomous robots increased dramatically during the Covid-19 pandemic due to the elimination of face-to-face contact between producer and consumer, according to a piece by the San Jose Spotlight. The use of these vehicles is energy and cost efficient compared to modern day delivery drivers.
Another example of a Starship robot causing an issue outside of Bowling Green, is when there was considerable damage done to a vehicle in Frisco, Texas 2020.
According to an NBC Dallas-Fort Worth article, a woman, Jisuk Mok, had “more than $2,600 of damage done to her front bumper,” by one of the company's vehicles.
Mok had a very similar reaction to Lavelle when the incident occured, as she initially thought it was an animal that had come into contact with her car before getting out to identify. She was then unsure of what to do, so she contacted the police who were also unsure of how to proceed properly.
“Nobody listened to me,” Mok said to NBC. “When I sent the email to the Starship robot company, the insurance company and even the city of Frisco, they didn’t listen.”
She identifies a problem with a new invention and a lack of regulation or knowledge from outsiders. A second issue, identified by both Lavelle and Mok, was the lack of phone number on Starship’s robots. Each person was unsure of how to contact Starship after the accident, delaying the traffic process.
BGSU Police Lieutenant Jon Luidhardt said that in his experiences, Starship as a company has been great to work with. He is able to contact them when necessary and has even worked with them to receive footage that a robot recorded in an accident zone.
“I’ve been really impressed with how precise they are,” Lt. Luidhardt said. “I think they have been a beneficial addition to Bowling Green.”
Bowling Green city police Lieutenant Dan Mancuso said he has seen little change in how the city has operated since the robots started roaming one year ago.
One BGSU student who works hands-on with the robots is senior Penny Rae Hawkins. Hawkins, who works at Panda Express, says that they have between 25 and 50 interactions with the robots during each shift.
Hawkins says minor damages or the robots being defaced with stickers happens most days but bigger issues, such as one of the robot’s 6 wheels falling off, happens as well. They said they have seen it happen at least five times while they have been working.
“Definitely the loss of a wheel is an issue I’ve noticed,” Hawkins said. “Which is especially funny when you consider that when it loses a wheel, I don't think it really realizes it. It’ll just keep rolling and be messed up and crooked.”
Hawkins noted that they can easily see scenarios where a robot losing a wheel could cause a significant traffic accident.
Wood County Prosecuting Attorney David Harold also works as a political science professor at BGSU and has seen the robots driving through town.
“I have absolutely no idea,” Harold said when asked how strong of a case a car owner would have against Starship in court for damages.
With autonomous robots becoming more mainstream across America and especially Bowling Green, it is important for people to know about them. Starship describes themselves as a startup company but they are not alone in developing these robots. Amazon, Serve by Postmates and Eliport are other autonomous robots designed to deliver products by sidewalk.
Overall, students enjoy the ease of getting food delivered to them and the Bowling Green Police Department has been impressed with the robots mechanics. It is clear that Starship’s robots are here to stay in Bowling Green.