Gatik puts autonomous box trucks on the road (with video)

Gatik, a Palo Alto, California-based autonomous vehicle startup, on Wednesday unveiled its fleet of autonomous box trucks aimed at servicing the so-called “middle mile,” the leg of the delivery that connects distribution centers and retail stores.

The trucks range from 11 to 20 feet long, and are capable of delivering ambient, cold and frozen products.

Founded in 2017, Gatik has been using roobovans to move groceries for Walmart and other retailers since last summer. The startup deployed the box fleet in the third quarter of 2019, Gautam Narang, Gatik’s CEO and co-founder, told FreightWaves.

Narang declined to reveal the exact number of vehicles, but said Gatik runs a fleet of at least 10 trucks seven days a week on routes up to 100 miles. The team is not building the trucks but is equipping off-the-shelf chassis with aftermarket software and hardware, and a safety driver is behind the wheel at all times.

The middle mile

For several years now, retailers have faced intense pressure to optimize their e-commerce processes, and as part of that effort are building out networks of smaller distribution centers that are closer to dense urban centers.

Gatik is one of the only self-driving delivery startups zeroing in on this middle-mile segment, considered one of the most expensive and challenging legs of the supply chain.

Key to optimizing this segment for autonomy, according to Narang, is a repetitive route structure. Operating in urban environments and suburbs as well as on highways, Gatik trucks navigate fixed, predetermined routes countless times each day, allowing engineers to  substantially reduce the unknown, or “edge cases” in a very short space of time, the company said.

When Gatik initially deployed in Arkansas, for example, the perception module mistakenly identified a mailbox as a pedestrian and slowed down, Narang said. By tweaking the algorithm to account for the mail box — and other specific objects and road geometries — Gatik can ensure the vehicle doesn’t misidentify objects in the future.

Another factor that helps Gatik make delivery more efficient is the ability to select the best possible route. The system avoids hospitals, fire stations and schools and restricts vehicles to the rightmost lanes, a tactic famously deployed by UPS and FedEx that cuts delays caused by waiting for a gap in the traffic, which would also waste fuel.

“We like to say we’re not solving the autonomy problem,” Narang said. “We’re solving the middle-mile problem.”

Coronavirus impacts

Like other self-driving vehicle executives, Narang touted the contactless benefits associated with autonomous delivery during the pandemic, as well as the technology’s ability to minimize disruption to the supply chain.

In the past few weeks, Gatik has seen orders spike 30%-40%, as online shopping soars in wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. Scaling these middle mile deliveries “only makes sense if you use an autonomous solution,” Narang said. “It was true before the pandemic, and it is even more relevant after the pandemic.”

Building on existing momentum, the company aims to double its headcount to 50-plus employees in the next six months as it expands operations across North America, the company said.

If Gatik continues on that trajectory, it will mark a bright spot in an industry that has recorded several losses in the past month. Despite their apparent advantages, self-driving vehicle companies have struggled amid the coronavirus economic downturn. Two autonomous trucking companies, Kodiak and Ike, announced layoffs this past month. Both seek to automate the long haul portion of the shipping process.

Gatik raised a $4.5 million seed round last year and continues to attract interest from investors, the company said. “Just as we’ve seen a spike in orders as a result of COVID-19, we’ve seen a great deal of interest from investors who share our vision,” said Gatik’s communications and policy director, Richard Steiner.