In 2019, Walmart started working with a company called Gatik to test autonomous delivery trucks on a two-mile route between a fulfillment center and a store in Bentonville, Arkansas. After those vehicles logged more than 70,000 miles with a human driver there to make sure nothing went wrong, Walmart and Gatik say they’re ready for a new challenge. Next year, there won’t be any human drivers in the trucks.
That milestone will make Gatik one of the first companies in the space to operate a fully autonomous route in this way. As the startup itself is quick to point, it has its simplified approach to thank for the achievement. By keeping its autonomous vehicles on specific routes, it can limit the type of factors that can paralyze them with indecision. “It’s an approach we refer to as structured autonomy,” said Gautam Narang, the CEO of Gatik. “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.”
In 2021, the companies plan to start testing a more ambitious route as well. The new pilot will see Gatik’s autonomous trucks navigate a 20-mile route between New Orleans and Metairie, Louisiana. Here they’ll move items between a Walmart Supercenter and a location where people can pick up their online orders from the retailer. At first, they’ll be human drivers overseeing this test.
Walmart has been one of the more active players in the driverless delivery space. In addition to partnerships with Ford and Udelv, the retailer recently announced a forthcoming test with GM’s Cruise unit that will see autonomous EVs deliver products to people in Scottsdale, Arizona. Even with Gatik’s recent successes, widespread commercial use of autonomous delivery vehicles is still years away.