At the heart of Gatik’s growth is the company’s strategy of focusing on fixed, delivery repeatable routes that are roughly 10 miles long, though the trucks can go as far as 200 miles on a single route that contains multiple stops along the way. The vehicles use the right lane as often as possible and make as many right turns as possible to maximize safety and efficiency and mostly avoid more complicated maneuvers, such as unprotected left turns.
Those sorts of restrictions might annoy human passengers but are of little consequence in a logistics-only operation.
"We have the luxury and benefit of choosing our own routes, and this is not possible if you have people on board," said Narang, a former visiting researcher at Honda Research Institute near Tokyo and a Carnegie Mellon University graduate. "We don't have to worry about lane changes or solving for unprotected left turns. We don't care, as long as goods get transportation from pickup locations to drop-off sites."
Because Gatik understands its routes so well — and the potential pitfalls along them — its contingency plans include preprogramming designated spots where the vehicles can pull over in the event of unforeseen problems.
Further, Narang says software engineers can break down the driving task into smaller deep neural networks that handle specific turns or traffic intersections. By designing a system that is learning-focused in bite-sized segments, Narang says, Gatik can achieve a high level of performance with minimal data inputs.
Gatik's vehicles range in size from Ford Transit Connect small commercial vans to Class 6 trucks, and the vehicles can travel up to 400 miles daily between hubs and stores.
Just as Gatik has partnered with retailers, it expects to partner with automakers so they can build trucks into which Gatik's self-driving system can be easily integrated, which will likely include hybrid and electric models.
Few expect self-driving technology to be ready for the road without safety drivers anytime soon. In a July report, global technology consulting firm Gartner said automated vehicles were more than 10 years from penetrating 20 percent of the market. But with routes established, vehicles considered and complications constrained, Narang believes Gatik is closer than many realize.
"This is the low-hanging fruit," he said. "We can target this in the near term and really scale this."
"You are simplifying your world by not doing B2C," he said. "Then you have regularity in planning in terms of original and destination points rather than a different doorstep every time. They're reducing complexity, and that tells me 'quicker to market.'"