Gautam Narang doesn’t sugarcoat it: Level 5 autonomous vehicles at scale won’t be here anytime soon. But that’s OK. The CEO and Co-founder of Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup Gatik isn’t trying to solve Level 5 autonomy. Instead, he’s focused on finding a business model that makes sense right now and delivers on the promise of autonomy in the near future.
Gatik, founded in 2017, this week introduced its autonomous box trucks. The temperature-controlled trucks range in size, from 11 to 20 feet long, and serve the supply chain’s middle mile. For example, Gatik in July 2019 launched a commercial service with Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, delivering online grocery orders from the retailer’s main warehouse to its neighborhood stores in Bentonville, Arkansas.
According to Narang, the middle mile is the most expensive part of a retailer’s supply chain. Gatik initially did this using smaller Ford Transit Connect vans that were retrofitted with the company’s self-driving system. Now the autonomous box trucks join the fray.
“Retailers are trying to meet customer demand, which is to get orders quickly and more efficiently and economically,” Narang told The Robot Report. “Retailers are struggling to do this, so they are moving closer to customers. Micro fulfillment is gaining traction, but there has been an explosion in the number of routes between centers and stores, the number of deliveries, and the number of customers. That’s where we come in.”
Robot trucks restricted to right turns
Like other autonomous vehicle companies, Gatik uses the full sensor suite for sensor fusion-based perception. The autonomous box trucks have six LiDARs, six radars (two long range, four medium range), 14 cameras and GPS.
But the environment is the key to Gatik’s operation. “We are Level 4. But instead of solving geofenced areas, we solved fixed, repeatable routes,” Narang said. “We operate these vehicles back and forth on fixed routes day after day after day. We’ve optimized the technology to drive on these routes. We believe we’re solving the middle mile problem, not the autonomy problem.”
Gatik’s box trucks each typically complete between 6-15 runs per day. Taking the fixed, repeatable route approach a step further, Gatik’s autonomous vehicles are restricted to driving in the right-most lane as often as possible. UPS uses the same tactic. Its trucks almost never turn left because it’s more fuel efficient, the company claims. Narang said staying in the right lane helps Gatik avoid changing multiple lanes and unprotected left turns, 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.
“The routes are all driven by customer requests. We look at their operation and run simulations to see if there’s anything we should avoid. We study driving patterns and traffic data. We also have multiple routes to connect each node in case of heavy traffic or road closures. We don’t have to have the fastest or shortest route. We choose the route that’s safest and easiest for the technology.”
If needed, Gatik’s vehicles will operate in left lanes and are capable of making lane changes and unprotected left turns.
Safety drivers on board
Gatik’s Level 4 autonomous vehicles have safety drivers, but the company has plans to do unmanned runs in the near future. “Most times the safety drivers don’t do anything,” Narang said. “But they take over control if they feel it’s necessary.”
Narang wouldn’t comment on the number of disengagements or edge cases that are troubling. But like most other autonomous vehicle companies, he said evaluating performance based on miles per disengagement, which the approach taken by the California Department of Motor Vehicles in its yearly report, is a flawed approach.
“Internally we track a better metric: days between intervention,” he said. “I can’t share that number, but we classify the disengagement as passive or aggressive. Decision-making and planning is where we spend most of our time. Decision-making is why we don’t see self-driving cars at scale with nobody on board. Our approach is tied to the use-case we’re going after. Our policy is learning first. We use deep learning and cross-check the decisions with classic robotics techniques.”
A gap in the market
Gatik’s revenue is in the “millions per year,” according to Gatik. This would be atypical for the autonomous vehicle industry at the moment. Narang said Gatik has “long-term contracts with sizable customers.” Besides Walmart, its autonomous vehicles serve multiple Fortune 500 companies across North America. Gatik expects to name new partners and operations in U.S. and Canada in 2020.
Gatik raised a $4.5M seed round in 2019 and is working on its Series A. It expects to double the size of its team this year.
“We found a gap in the market. On one end you have the autonomous semi-trucks that are better suited for highway driving,” said Narang. “Cities are on the other end of the spectrum, but payload and speed are restrictions for those types of autonomous vehicles. The middle mile is solvable in near future, not much further into the future.”