"We are not trying to boil the ocean and solve every tricky autonomous-driving scenario," he said. "We are constraining the problem. If that means sticking to the right-most lane or making three right turns to make a left, all of that is fair game."
Such logistical twists might annoy human passengers, but in the freight world, no one cares so long as their goods get delivered. That's why Gatik has concentrated on launching self-driving trucks on what Narang calls fixed "middle mile" routes that connect distribution hubs, warehouses and retail stores.
So far, that strategy has worked. Gatik's trucks, which run from Class 3 through Class 6 sizes, have logged revenue-generating miles for customers that include Walmart and Loblaw, Canada's largest grocery chain.
As the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates e-commerce and demand for consumer goods and the logistics chain adapts by creating more "dark stores" — sites for online-order fulfillment rather than in-person shopping — and micro-distribution hubs, more business opportunity will arise among the hub-and-spoke routes in which Gatik specializes.
Walmart has been an eager partner for the startup based in Palo Alto, Calif. Gatik intends to begin driverless operations that will connect a Walmart dark store to a neighborhood market, Walmart's name for its smaller-footprint locations, near the retail giant's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters sometime this year.
Gatik has not constrained itself to developments related to autonomous driving. In mid-February, it added three Ford Transit 350 HD delivery vehicles that also are equipped with electric powertrains. The vehicles use electric drive technology from Via Motors Inc.
In long-range trucking, electrified tractor-trailers might be a difficult sell because of limited range and battery weight. But for trips that run in the dozens of miles such as the ones Gatik handles, EVs provide lower energy and maintenance costs, savings that can be passed along to customers.
"Electrification for short-haul logistics really makes sense," said Richard Steiner, Gatik's head of policy and communications. "They're perfectly suited for one another."
The EVs have been connecting a Walmart Superstore in New Orleans with a pickup hub in a suburb. The distance between the locations is approximately 20 miles, well within the vehicles' 120-mile range.
Charging infrastructure is being instal-led at both hub and destination so the vehicles can recharge while goods are loaded and unloaded.
Long term, Gatik envisions trucks completing middle mile routes of as long as 400 miles per day. But the bulk of the routes it operates along now are in the range of 150 to 200 miles per day. With charging during stops, those can be completed by electric box trucks.
"Electrification is definitely on the road map," Narang said.
"For our segment and the kind of use cases and ranges we do … I would say that's at the top of the wish list for our partners."