Gatik has been operating fully driverless commercial deliveries in the middle mile and seeking to scale its operations, preparing for further change to the industry.
The company launched commercial deliveries with Walmart in 2021, and Class 3–6 autonomous operations have been deployed to Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Ontario, Canada. Other partners include grocers Loblaw Companies and Kroger and global tech giant Pitney Bowes.
In Texas, the autonomous trucking company is working with Georgia-Pacific to have Class 6 driverless box trucks “disrupt short-haul logistics networks traditionally involving Class 8 trucks,” representing a first for the industry, a spokesperson said in an email.
To get a sense of how it’s unfolding, Transport Dive spoke with Richard Steiner, the company’s head of policy and communication, last month to get his perspectives on the technology.
Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed for brevity and clarity.
TRANSPORT DIVE: How would you summarize what Gatik does and how it compares to the competition?
RICHARD STEINER: Where we live and succeed is the middle mile, moving goods between micro fulfillment centers, small distribution centers and local convenient pickup points, such as retail store brands, or other pickup spots. That landscape has become so relevant and increasingly important — not least with COVID-19 and the rise of e-commerce. But it was already going sky high before that.
Consumers don't want to wait around for goods anymore. They used to sort of be content with a traditional distribution architecture of a big rig, transporting goods to a DC once or twice a week. Now, we're seeing one-to-two hour delivery windows as essential.
By constraining our use case to fixed, known, repeatable routes, we’re able to achieve that safely and relatively quickly versus other applications of the technology with the non-repeatable routes that we operate on. We can avoid schools, hospitals, fire stations, heavily pedestrianized areas. We can overoptimize the safety in a way that's much more challenging with other use cases of autonomous transportation. So we can build a real value for our customers in the near term, as opposed to three or five years away. This is happening for us now.
Over the past year, what sort of disruption has the company seen through partnerships, such as its one with Georgia-Pacific in Texas?
STEINER: So the thinking behind this from our customers’ side is, ‘We've been using these these larger vehicles, the Class 8 big rigs in the regional distribution architecture to do big loads a fewer number of times per week.’ They need something a lot more responsive or more flexible. And that's where our Class 6 autonomous box truck solutions have really been coming in.
Regarding some of the tangibles, we're able to increase the frequency of deliveries, with our smaller with our medium duty box truck size. So, we can deliver a higher frequency of goods, which means that our customers and consumers have, for example, a larger window of opportunity to place their orders and still get it within a very short timeframe.
Kroger and other customers saw this the same way. And so they're actually now looking to — as we scale and grow with our customers — really adjust their regional distribution architecture to reflect the needs of their end consumers with a much more responsive and flexible solution like ours.
A big part of the equation is California regulations, given a legislative bill there that could affect whether heavy-duty vehicles could operate without a safety operator. What’s your outlook there, and how does the company pursue lobbying?
STEINER: Should it be the will of the Legislature to proceed with AB 316, as it is written, the gargantuan safety, economic, societal, employment and logistics benefits will not be available to California in the same way that they are available to currently 26 other states that allow for driver-out operations. And other states beyond those 26 are looking at or implementing very advanced autonomous vehicle policies.
We work both directly with legislators, regulators and policymakers as one stream of activity. As a second stream of activity, we work very closely with our customers, government and public affairs teams. Case in point, we work closely with Walmart on legislation in both Oklahoma and Kansas, successfully seeing both of those bills developed and enacted into law. And finally, we're a member of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, as well as other large trade associations who support our lobbying efforts in in this area. So, for us, it's really a three-pronged strategy to ensure that we are set up for success as far as the regulations are concerned.
Correction: This article has updated a quote referring to Class 8 trucks.