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Gatik bids adieu to safety drivers in fully driverless Walmart pilot

Autonomous trucking company announces fully driverless operations with Walmart, expands to Louisiana

Walmart is testing branded electric vehicles in Arkansas (Photo: Gatik)

Autonomous trucking company Gatik announces fully driverless operations with Walmart, expands to Louisiana

The term “driverless” is overused and misunderstood. 

Over the past few years, dozens of autonomous car and truck technology companies have announced “driverless” vehicle pilots, prompting excitement and concern from people who don’t necessarily read the fine print stating a safety driver is behind the wheel at all times.

But now, in late 2020, as the technology matures and the pilots rack up test miles, truly driverless operations are becoming a reality.

In October Waymo became the first autonomous vehicle company to launch a fully driverless robotaxi offering, removing safety drivers from its ride-share vehicles in Phoenix.

And on Wednesday retail and e-commerce giant Walmart (NYSE: WMT) announced a milestone in driverless delivery, stating in a blog post that it will remove the safety driver from behind the wheel of trucks manufactured by autonomous box truck company Gatik.

A ‘middle mile’ first

The two companies launched an autonomous vehicle pilot last year moving customer orders on a two-mile route between a dark store (a store that stocks items for fulfillment but isn’t open to the public) and a Walmart neighborhood market in Bentonville, Arkansas. 

Since then, the vehicles have racked up more than 70,000 operational miles in autonomous mode with a safety driver.

“Now we’re taking the next step forward,” wrote Tom Ward, SVP of customer product for Walmart, in the post.

Starting in 2021 Gatik’s multi-temperature trucks will operate the route driverless, Ward said, noting that the achievement “signifies the first-ever driverless operation carried out on the supply chain middle mile for both Gatik and Walmart.”

The announcement comes less than a month after Gatik raised $25 million Series A, and inevitably puts pressure on other autonomous delivery companies and their partners, which have been racing to get self-driving vehicles on the road and into the commercial markets.

Gatik CEO Gautam Narang credited the technology and regulatory achievement to the company’s focus on fixed, repeatable routes, an approach he refers to as “structured autonomy.” 

“It’s safe and efficient because it enables us to constrain the challenge of autonomy, thereby heavily over-optimizing our delivery routes and minimizing edge cases,” he wrote on Medium.

In partnership with Walmart, Gatik “worked closely with legislative and regulatory personnel in Arkansas to inform the development of autonomous vehicle legislation and share detailed information on all aspects of our operations in the state.”

To date, 29 states have passed legislation relating to the use of autonomous vehicles. Those regulations vary widely regarding what kind of testing is allowed. 

Louisiana bound

In addition to going driverless in Arkansas, Ward said that Walmart and Gatik will expand to a second location, delivering items from a Supercenter to a designated location where customers can pick up their orders.

That operation will begin early next year on a 20-mile route between New Orleans and Metairie, Louisiana. Those trucks will initially operate with a safety driver.

Linda Baker, Senior Environment and Technology Reporter

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves senior reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes autonomous vehicles, the startup scene, clean trucking, and emissions regulations. Please send tips and story ideas to [email protected]