The autonomous vehicle gold rush is about more than owners being “driven” to work by their cars or robotaxi services. One of the biggest segments of autonomous vehicles will be in commercial applications. Specifically, self-driving delivery trucks could be a massive boon to the retail businesses, and Walmart is already experimenting with them.
Gatik’s self-driving delivery trucks servicing Walmart stores in Arkansas
Self-driving delivery truck startup company Gatik has reached a milestone that none of its competitors have previously reached. According to a report from Automotive News (subscription required), the startup is the first to run a full-time autonomous delivery service that is not merely a demonstration of self-driving technology.
It is far from what many would call “large scale,” but currently, Gatik has two box trucks operation on a seven-mile route in Bentonville, Arkansas, to service a Walmart store. Gatik currently has a commercial partnership with Walmart, which could lead to expanded service in the future.
Gatik began the self-driving truck service in August of 2021, and it has continued operating since. The vehicles operate daily and are generating revenue for Gatik as the two self-driving delivery trucks connect a Walmart “dark store” to a local market.
According to Gatik’s CEO, Gautam Narang, the company uses short, simplified, easily repeatable routes. For example, there are points on the Walmart route in which the trucks will choose to make three right turns rather than an unprotected left turn.
“It’s not the most direct route,” said Narang in an interview with Automotive News. “But it’s one where risk and exposure is the least. It goes back to how we think about taking these steps. … We’re not solving the autonomy problem. We’re solving a constrained problem, and this is what it looks like.”
Small-scale self-driving delivery vehicles could have enormous potential
Gatik’s strategy of having small self-driving delivery trucks follow short, simplified routes seems to be working for it, but other companies are exploring autonomous delivery on a smaller scale.
Autonomous delivery startup Nuro has recently raised $600 million in funding and has a unique business model. Rather than create full-sized autonomous vehicles that are meant to carry passengers or large cargo, Nuro when a completely different route. Nuro developed the R2, a cabinless autonomous vehicle that is only large enough to carry small to medium-sized items. The Nuro R2 is intended for retailers to deliver goods such as groceries, prescription medication, and even pizza. Dominos is testing the R2 right now to carry out deliveries to its customers in test markets.
Currently, Nuro is testing the R2 in major cities like Houston, Phoenix, and Mountain View. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) permitted Nuro to test up to 5,000 R2 vehicles on public roads for two years.
Gatik has competition coming to the United States from Sweden
Despite the self-driving delivery truck market being bleeding edge and still very new, Gatik already has competition coming its way from overseas. Swedish autonomous vehicle company Einride recently announced that it would be expanding its operations to the United States.
Einride produces autonomous trucks called “Pods” that have no driver cabins and are capable of transporting cargo that is equal to the capacity of the average box truck. Einride is already testing in Louisville at GE Appliances HQ. In addition to GE, Einride has signed Bridgestone tires and vegan milk company Oatly.
Enride pods are only testing on private property at the moment, but the company is working on getting the necessary permits to operate pods on public roads.
Will self-driving delivery trucks eventually take over the commercial transportation industry and put truckers out of work? At this rate, it appears that might happen eventually.