Gatik's driverless vehicles travel a route described as a complex urban environment that requires safely navigating intersections, traffic lights and merging on heavily trafficked roads.
Fully driverless vehicles are plying the roadways in Walmart’s hometown of Bentonville, Ark., in what the retailer and its autonomous vehicle partner, Gatik, contend is a global first.
Making good on a promise last last year, the companies said that Gatik’s fleet of autonomous delivery trucks are now operating daily without a safety driver behind the wheel on the middle-mile route. The route moves customer orders between a Walmart dark store used for the fulfillment of online orders to a small-format grocery concept branded as Neighborhood Market, where customers pick up orders. It's the first time that an autonomous trucking company has removed the safety driver from a commercial delivery route on the middle mile anywhere in the world, according to the companies. They described the path that the vehicles travel as a complex urban route that involves safely navigating intersections, traffic lights and merging on dense urban roads.
“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, SVP 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.”
The fully driverless operations, which began in August, involve consistent, repeated delivery runs multiple times per day, seven days per week on public roads, according to the companies. Going driverless unlocks what Walmart and Gatik said were the full advantages of autonomous delivery, including increased speed and responsiveness when fulfilling e-commerce orders, increased asset use and enhanced safety for all road users.
“This milestone signifies a revolutionary breakthrough for the autonomous trucking industry,” said Gautam Narang, CEO and co-founder of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Gatik. “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.”
While the world of autonomy is filled with plenty of hype, the Walmart and Gatik accomplishment seems worthy of Narang’s characterization as a revolutionary breakthrough. He co-founded the company in 2017 and began operations in 2019 with a pilot program with Walmart. Then, after 18 months of autonomous operations, Gatik and Walmart in December 2020 received the Arkansas State Highway Commission’s first-ever approval to remove the safety driver from Gatik’s autonomous trucks. Since beginning operations, Gatik said that it has racked up a 100% safety record across multiple operational sites in Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Ontario, Canada. The company also recently opened a major facility near Dallas.
A key reason for this is the company’s focus on fixed, repeatable delivery routes to maximize safety, using proprietary, commercial-grade autonomous technology that's purpose built for B2B short-haul logistics. Doing so eliminates route variability that would be found with B2C deliveries, where every end point is different. The strategic decision is based on the view that retailers are increasingly turning to hub-and-spoke distribution models to meet consumer needs, which makes the middle mile the primary use case for autonomy. According to Gatik, in the past decade, shorter urban routes have become more prominent, with 65% of all routes under 500 miles, and routes under 100 miles growing by 37%.
Walmart operates more than 10,500 stores under 48 banners in 24 countries, and e-commerce websites, employing 2.2 million-plus associates worldwide. Walmart U.S. is No. 1 on The PG100, Progressive Grocer’s 2021 list of the top food and consumables retailers in North America, while Walmart-owned Sam’s Club ranks No. 9 on the list.