Nov 8, 2021 - Economy

Driverless trucks are making daily runs for Walmart

Image of a driverless Walmart truck making a right turn in Bentonville, Ark.

Gatik's technology enables this Walmart truck to drive itself. Photo: Gatik

The country's first driverless trucks are now operating on local roads in Bentonville, Arkansas, shuttling merchandise for Walmart from a warehouse to a nearby store.

What's new: Walmart and its self-driving technology partner, Gatik, said today they had pulled the human safety driver from autonomous delivery trucks on a seven-mile route in the retailer's hometown — an industry first.

The big picture: Short urban routes are becoming more common as retailers like Walmart turn to hub-and-spoke distribution to fulfill growing online orders for same-day store pickup. Retailers need to be able to quickly move goods from micro-fulfillment centers to nearby stores.

  • Gatik has been developing self-driving technology incrementally, starting with this so-called "middle mile" of the supply chain — short, fixed, repeatable delivery routes.

What they're saying: “This milestone signifies a revolutionary breakthrough for the autonomous trucking industry,” said Gautam Narang, CEO and co-founder of Gatik, based in Mountain View, California.

  • “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."

Details: Four-year-old Gatik has been working with Walmart on middle-mile logistics in Bentonville since 2019, initially with both a safety driver and a second operator in the passenger seat.

  • Now, with permission from the Arkansas State Highway Commission, the trucks are operating with nobody behind the wheel.
  • For now, the passenger still rides along as an observer, with limited access to the controls, to stop the truck in an emergency. A chase vehicle follows behind to observe as well.
  • The trucks move customer orders from a Walmart "dark store" (or micro-fulfillment center) to a nearby Neighborhood Market.
  • The initial driving route was selected to minimize risk: It avoids schools and hospitals, and favors right turns over unprotected left turns— a common practice among UPS drivers too.

The bottom line: Autonomous trucks are beginning to roll out.

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