If you are traveling the roads in Bentonville, Arkansas, don’t be surprised if that Walmart box truck that passes you on the street appears to be driverless. It is.
Autonomous vehicle company Gatik announced Monday that it is now moving freight for Walmart in its box trucks with no one in the driver’s seat.
“This is not a one-off thing. This is not a demo. This is us doing commercial deliveries for Walmart,” Gautam Narang, CEO and co-founder of Gatik, told Modern Shipper. “Obviously the team is very excited. The plan is to expand this to different markets.”
According to the company, this is the first known use worldwide of an autonomous middle-mile truck running without a safety driver in the driver’s seat. The company began running full time without a driver in August.
The missing driver
Gatik has been running pilots of its technology with Walmart in Bentonville since 2019, but those trial runs included a safety driver behind the wheel. Now the program has progressed to the point where removing the driver was possible. Narang said there is a person in the passenger seat with access to an emergency brake should it be necessary, and the vehicles are being monitored remotely at this time, but in terms of being a fully autonomous vehicle, the Gatik multitemperature box trucks are just that — autonomous.
“We’ve kept all the different stakeholders in the loop,” Narang said. “In this particular case, we have been working with the governor of Arkansas [and state highway and emergency services].”
Narang said each stakeholder has been satisfied with Gatik’s progress in the program and has signed off on the autonomous rides.
The company is using the box trucks, built on a Ford chassis, to run product from a Walmart (NYSE: WMT) dark store in Bentonville to a Neighborhood Market. Narang said the routes are fixed and repeatable, covering 7.1 miles round trip over both urban and suburban roads. The route includes a mix of vehicle types and pedestrians, and the trucks move at speeds up to 45 mph. Two trucks are making between four and six total runs a day. Covering the same route has allowed Gatik to progress quickly to removal of the driver by removing uncertainty.
“We can remove the number of [unknown] items on the route. A good example would be taking two right turns instead of an unpredictable left,” Narang said.
Narang declined to provide specific safety data information, saying that will be released in time — although the company said it has achieved a 100% safety record across all its locations. But the stakeholders have been impressed with the trucks’ performance.
“Our business is such that we don’t have to cut corners, we don’t have to rush through anything,” he said.
“Recently we got an assessment done from a third party that specializes in assessing safety critical systems, and the outcome of that assessment was super positive,” Narang added. “We have given [the stakeholders] a detailed analysis of our numbers, and everyone is comfortable enough to get to our milestone.”
A single supervisor is monitoring the vehicles remotely and can intervene if necessary. Right now, that relationship is one supervisor per truck, but eventually one supervisor will oversee several trucks, although Narang said profitability is achievable with as few as one supervisor monitoring two trucks. He was quick to note that the supervisor is not controlling the vehicle, though.
“At no point are we doing remote control or teleoperation on the road,” Narang said. “It is an assist, but it is [not remote controlled].”
Walmart sees potential
Walmart sees the technology as potentially boosting efficiency in its supply chain.
“Through our work with Gatik, we’ve identified that autonomous box trucks offer an efficient, safe and sustainable solution for transporting goods on repeatable routes between our stores,” said Tom Ward, senior vice president of last mile at Walmart U.S. “We’re thrilled to be working with Gatik to achieve this industry-first, driverless milestone in our home state of Arkansas and look forward to continuing to use this technology to serve Walmart customers with speed.”
Gatik first received approval to run the trucks without a driver in December following the completion of 18 months of safety data collection. At that point, the company, in cooperation with Walmart, undertook a comprehensive stakeholder strategy that involved local and state leadership and emergency services personnel.
“Arkansas and Gatik have shifted into the future with Gatik’s self-driving delivery truck,” said Gov. Asa Hutchinson. “It is fitting that Arkansas, which is home to the greatest retail companies in the world, is the launching pad for this innovation in retail delivery.”
Gatik is also running pilots of the technology in Louisiana with Walmart and in Ontario, Canada, with Loblaw Cos. Those programs continue to have a driver in the seat.
The company recently announced it had started operations in Texas as part of the AllianceTexas Mobility Innovation Zone (MIZ). MIZ is a purpose-built industrial development in north Texas that has been designed as a hub of supply chain innovation. The development plays host to a number of companies, including autonomous vehicle developer TuSimple, drone companies and railroads. All the companies participating in the program are involved in moving live freight.
Gatik also announced an $85 million series B funding round, led by new investor Koch Disruptive Technologies with participation from existing investors Innovation Endeavours, Wittington Ventures, FM Capital, Dynamo Ventures, Trucks VC, Intact Ventures and others, including Ryder (NYSE: R) which will lease trucks and provide maintenance service to Gatik.