Self-driving delivery vehicles along the middle mile just got a little more autonomous. Walmart announced today that the Gatik self-driving delivery box trucks it uses on one Arkansas delivery route will remove the safety driver from the vehicle in 2021.
Gatik had quietly revealed plans for this driverless delivery last week. As Gatik explained then, one of the reasons it was able to go full driverless is because of the company’s focus on the middle mile. The middle mile is the business-to-business path when moving goods — between a warehouse and a store, for example. Because this route is clearly defined, fixed and repeatable, it decreases the number of variables a self-driving car will encounter. Gatik said this limited autonomous scope made it easier to gain regulatory approval necessary to for true humanless driving.
In addition to driverless deliveries in Arkansas, Walmart is expanding where and how it will use Gatik trucks. From the Walmart blog post:
We’ve tested multi-temperature Autonomous Box Trucks on a small scale in Bentonville and have learned how we might use autonomous vehicles to transfer customer orders from a dark store to a live store. Now, we’re expanding our pilot with Gatik to a second location to test an even longer delivery route and a second use case – delivering items from a Supercenter to a Walmart pickup point, a designated location where customers can conveniently pick up their orders. The Autonomous Box Trucks in Louisiana will initially operate with a safety driver.
The new route will be between New Orleans and Metairie, LA. But more interesting than the geography is the new use cases Walmart is outlining. By delivering to a pickup location, Walmart could provide a way for people who don’t live near a Walmart to shop at one. People in these more remote areas could order online and pick their items up closer to home. As Walmart describes, the use of autonomous trucks could essentially create a constant conveyor belt style loop of of deliveries from supercenters to pickup points throughout the day.
Autonomous delivery has been making some nice, errr, inroads this year. Back in February, Nuro got federal approval for its pod-like autonomous delivery vehicles to operate on public roads, and in April the company got approval to operate on California’s roads. In October the company announced that its vehicles had been running in three states with no drivers, no occupants and no chase cars.
In addition to its middle mile, Walmart is also testing out autonomous grocery delivery with cars from Cruise in Scottsdale Arizona.
Part of what’s spurring all this autonomous action is, of course, the COVID pandemic. Autonomous delivery helps reduce the amount of human-to-human contact when transferring goods, and as noted above, could be a means for operating a continuous supply chain so there are fewer product shortages.