By John Hitch
Gatik, a self-driving truck startup out of Silicon Valley, has boldly claimed dominion over the middle mile segment of the supply chain, the link that connects warehouses and distribution centers to retail stores. Built on a gas-powered Ford Transit 350HD chassis and leveraging proprietary self-driving technology, the 11- to 20-ft. autonomous vehicles (AVs) were engineered to bring ambient, cold and frozen goods to grocery stores and other locations without the need for a human driver.
The company said the trucks’ artificial intelligence and array of sensors provide Level 4 autonomy on the Society of Automotive Engineers scale, which means the truck is capable of traversing its pre-determined route without human intervention for the B2B short-haul segment. Electrification is on Gatik’s roadmap. Safety drivers are still in the cab as the technology is tested. Trial shifts last 12 hours, and so far, Gatik’s fleet of 10 commercial vehicles has delivered more than 15,000 orders in North America.
Walmart has been an early adopter, using the self-driving trucks to move goods between two Bentonville, Ark., stores since 2019. The technology has also tested on public roads in California and Canada. According to Gatik, which means “progressive” in Sanskrit, the deployments “mark the first ever revenue-generating deployment of an AV fueled hub-and-spoke delivery model in North America.
The company likens its solution to shelf-stocking warehouse robots, with logistical benefits including enhanced inventory pooling across multiple locations, the ability to achieve higher delivery output, greater elasticity and scalability, and a reduction in labor costs.
So why is the three-year-old tech company content to be stuck in the middle?
Gautam Narang, CEO and co-founder of Gatik, noted the $1 trillion supply chain sector is also “stuck,” with only one in 10 retailers turning a profit on delivery. Pair that with the crippling COVID-19 pandemic that threatens driver availability while demand skyrockets and Gatik, which promises less human disruption and 100% contactless delivery, has found itself at the highly sought but rarely found right place at the right time.
“The supply chain is more critical than ever in times of crisis — and crisis also highlights already weak links,” Narang said. “Consumers’ needs and wants have changed dramatically, but the existing supply chain foundation is inelastic and doesn’t support growth or unexpected changes in demand.
“Gatik enables customers to drastically optimize their hub-and-spoke operations and ensure essential supplies get where they’re needed — transporting anything from medical supplies and equipment, to frozen and fresh foods, to everyday items that make us feel safe and secure,” Narang continued.
Another advantage is that tech firms and logistics providers have spent little time thing about middle mile solutions. TuSimple and Plus.ai have focused on Class 8 long-haul segment, while Rivian and Uber are testing out last mile and passenger transport solutions. At both of those ends, edge cases, or variable events that the AI may not be safely prepared to handle, are more pronounced.
“The vast majority of Gatik’s competitors are focusing on B2C deliveries or passenger transportation and as a result, attempting to build an all-environment AV solution with very generic geofencing,” said Santosh Sankar, partner at Dynamo Ventures. “These models pose complex challenges, require specific technologies, and will take a long time to mature. Whereas others in the AV space are having to accept their timelines for deployment need to be adjusted, Gatik has been quietly and successfully delivering a wide range of goods on behalf of its customers, and generating significant revenue as it does so.”