Self-driving truck startup Gatik has reached a milestone.
Two of the company's autonomous box trucks are conducting driverless operations along a seven-mile route in Bentonville, Ark., as part of its commercial partnership with retail giant Walmart Inc.
Gatik removed its human safety drivers from behind the wheel — though not the vehicle itself — starting in August. The company disclosed the developments Monday morning.
It is believed to be the first time a self-driving truck company has launched ongoing driverless commercial service beyond infrequent demonstrations. The trucks are running every day, and generating revenue on their route, which connects a Walmart dark store with a neighborhood market.
Gatik CEO Gautam Narang hailed the service as both a historic moment and validation of the company's strategy to deploy trucks on specific, repeatable routes that are chosen for their operational simplicity — a business model different from that of many trucking competitors such as Aurora, Waymo and others pursuing long-haul routes.
There are places along the route, for example, where Gatik's trucks choose to make three right turns instead of a more complicated, unprotected left turn.
"It's not the most direct route," Narang tells 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."
Human safety backups are no longer behind the wheel, but they remain vehicle occupants. They're sitting in the passenger seat and can bring the vehicle to a stop. Gatik employees trail the trucks in a chase car, and others watch the truck's operations from a nearby teleoperation center, from which high-level instructions can be sent to the truck, should it encounter an unusual situation.
Further, there are preselected spots along the route where the trucks can pull over, should technical problems or other complications occur.
After testing along the route for two and a half years before August's first driverless run, Narang said the safety passengers were not technically necessary. But the step came following consultation with a range of state and local officials interested in taking gradual steps toward unmanned operations.
Since the driverless operations started, he said there have been no interventions needed from any of the backups. The "safety passenger" phase of operations is expected to last several months.
"What this highlights is that these trips are commercially viable today, and as we take the driver out, the margins get even better," Narang said. "We are not waiting to take that 0-to-1 step before we commercialize. The way we choose our routes and sites means we have operational domains where we can take the safety driver out sooner."
The work has allowed Walmart to understand the operational aspects of autonomy. Employees can access the truck's cargo area by entering a code on a touchpad for loading and delivery. Information from the trucks is shared at the drop-off location, so employees know if they're stuck in traffic or know when the trucks are approaching the loading zones.