KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Food delivery robots, or personal delivery devices, are all over the University of Tennessee, Knoxville campus. However, we could start to see them in other parts of the city. 

Many big cities like Chicago have begun pilot programs for PDDs, but the City of Knoxville wants to make sure that they have the proper guidelines in place before we can see them in other areas of Knoxville. 

The City Council on Tuesday approved a motion for a six-month moratorium that prevents PDD companies from starting operations until a City PDD policy is developed and adopted. This moratorium will not affect the operations of these robots on UT’s campus. 

“We’re just wanting to be proactive with this moratorium and we know that this is a technology that eventually would come here if we didn’t have some sort of regulations in place,” Knoxville Director of Strategic Policy & Programs Carter Hall said. “So, we just want to be proactive and get ahead of it.” 

“In recent years, several companies have emerged operating Personal Delivery Devices (PDDs), small-to-large autonomous robots that deliver packages, food, or other items to individuals. PDDs are typically electric autonomous robots designed to pick up a package or food from a vendor and deliver it to a customer. These robots operate on public rights-of-way, such as sidewalks, in order to navigate the area between businesses and customers. The City recognizes that while PDDs may provide a valuable service, these devices also pose significant public safety and operational questions. Due to the increasing market expansion of these companies, the administration has identified the need for the development of a PDD policy for the city. This six-month moratorium would prevent PDD companies from starting operations until a City PDD policy is developed and adopted.” 

Ordinance approved by Knoxville City Council

Hall added that they’ve seen how successful PDDs can be on places like UT’s campus, but they’re afraid that without the proper guidelines in place, PDDs might start popping up around other parts of the city and cause problems.  

“Obviously safety, it’s number one,” he explained. “We want to make sure that these things are on the sidewalk, that they’re not impeding pedestrians or making it an unsafe environment for pedestrians, and obviously if they ever have to crossroads or things like that that there’s traffic engineering behind that and that were not going to make our roads any less safe.” 

“Any new emerging technology requires a thoughtful strategy. UT’s use of PDDs on campus likely provides enough data to assess what has worked well and what has not. I agree with the mayor’s decision to develop a recommendation before allowing them citywide.”  

District 1 Councilman Tommy Smith

“Although I am somewhat familiar with the operation of PDDs on the UT campus, allowing them in wider areas does raise questions of safety and functionality on city sidewalks and right of ways,” Fifth District Councilman Charles Thomas said in a statement. “A study which includes businesses and stakeholders needs to be undertaken to assess their value and suitability, and a well-thought-out policy needs to be developed before their use is expanded. I will be supporting the City administration’s request for a six-month moratorium while this study is done.” 

The city will have at least six months to look at what policies they may want to put in place, though the moratorium could be extended.

“We are pleased to hear the emergency moratorium will not impact the service provided by Grubhub/Starship on the UT Knoxville campus, which we partnered with the City of Knoxville to implement in March 2022,” said Rebecca McKnight, Associate Director of Marketing for UPM and Vol Dining.

Hall said the city went through a similar process when electric scooters started to become popular back in 2019.