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Gatik, an autonomous driving startup and 2020 RBR50 winner, continues to reach new milestones in its partnership with Walmart. The company today said it no longer has a human safety driver behind the wheel of two Level 4 autonomous box trucks operating in Bentonville, Arkansas, which is the home of the retail giant.
But the box trucks really aren’t completely driverless just yet, however. Gatik still has a human sitting in the passenger seat of the vehicles with access to an emergency brake, and they use a chase vehicle to help remedy situations where the autonomous driving system fails.
Gatik said its vehicles make 4-6 trips per day on a route that is 7.1 miles round trip. The vehicles transport customer orders between a Walmart dark store and a Neighborhood Market. Gatik said operations without a human behind the driver’s wheel began in August 2021. The company told The Robot Report that, up until press time, the human in the passenger seat has yet to pull the emergency brake. We asked a Gatik spokesperson what it will take to remove the human from the passenger seat, but we’ve yet to hear back.
Gatik was founded in 2017 and exited stealth mode in 2019 with Walmart as a partner. Gatik is generating revenue by helping Walmart automate its middle-mile logistics. Gatik also has a partnership with Loblaw, the largest supermarket chain in Canada with 2,400-plus locations.
“Our deployment in Bentonville is not a one-time demonstration. These are frequent, revenue-generating, daily runs that our trucks are completing safely in a range of conditions on public roads, demonstrating the commercial and technical advantages of fully driverless operations on the middle mile,” said Gautam Narang, CEO and co-founder, Gatik.
Walmart has also tested autonomous vehicles for last-mile delivery, including those from Cruise, Nuro and Waymo. Of course, early success with Walmart doesn’t mean much in the world of robotics. Just ask Bossa Nova Robotics.
“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.”
As you’ll notice in the video atop this page, Gatik’s box truck is always driving in the right-most lane and only takes right turns. That’s by design. Gatik restricts its vehicles to fixed, repeatable routes to eliminate as much uncertainty from their routes as possible. And staying in the right lane helps Gatik avoid changing multiple lanes and unprotected left turns, the latter of which is one of the harder maneuvers for autonomous vehicles. Gatik also avoids routes that drive by fire stations, hospitals and schools due to unpredictability.
Narang was a guest on The Robot Report Podcast back in June 2020. Clearly, a lot has changed for Gatik since then. But Narang discussed how the company landed its partnership with Walmart while in stealth mode, its hybrid approach to Level 4 autonomy, restricting its vehicles to the right-most lane and more. We also discussed the changing investment landscape around autonomous vehicles and why level 5 autonomy is at least 10-15 years away, if it can even be solved. You can listen to that interview below, starting at the 23:19 mark.