One of the lesser known companies in the automated driving sector is already generating revenues from a couple of the largest retailers in North America, but you’ll probably never get to ride in its vehicles. Silicon Valley-based Gatik is a relatively small company using automated box trucks to move groceries for Walmart

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in Arkansas and Loblaws in Toronto, Canada. This week, Gatik is adding a third location in Louisiana and partnering with Via Motors for its first battery electric trucks. 

Purely from a technology standpoint, Gatik is not doing anything radically different from any number of other AV companies. They use a suite of lidar, radar and cameras to sense the environment around the vehicle and lots of software to determine a safe path through that environment. 

Where Gatik differs, is its business model. Generalized automated driving is taking time to mature. As a result companies like Voyage and Gatik are using a more restricted operating domain in order to simplify the problem. Voyage is focused on robotaxi services for seniors living in retirement communities. Gatik is focused on so-called middle mile deliveries.

With the growth in demand for services like curbside pickup, especially during the pandemic, companies like Walmart are increasingly shifting to a regional hub-and-spoke model to make this process more efficient. If you’ve been in a grocery store in the past year, you’ve likely seen “shoppers” going up and down the aisles picking items from lists submitted through online ordering. This isn’t a very efficient process and also leads to more crowding in those aisles. 

Walmart and others are implementing new micro-distribution centers, smaller than the traditional warehouses, but laid out to enable automation of the pick and pack process. Customers submit orders online for pickup, they are packed at one of these local distribution centers and then the complete order is brought to the neighborhood store for curbside pickup. 

This is where Gatik fits in. With a limited number of end points and known routes for all trips, Gatik can quickly optimize its driving system to handle those routes. With staff at either end to load and unload the trucks, that aspect is handled, the trucks just have to drive from the distribution center to the store, a much easier problem to solve. Gatik has been operating in Arkansas with Walmart for two years and began deliveries for Loblaws in mid-2020. 

Gatik’s automated driving system is designed for medium duty class 3-6 box trucks up to 26 feet long. It is currently using Ford Transit 350-based trucks with a 12 foot box. In addition to staff for loading and unloading, the end points also have charging that can be used while the trucks are stationary. 

This week, in Louisiana, Gatik is debuting its first electric trucks. Still based on the Transit 350, the three new trucks are now equipped with a battery electric powertrain from Via Motors. Based in Utah, Via began life as Raser Technologies developing a plug-in hybrid conversion for GM trucks including the Hummer H3. The company was reorganized into Via in 2011 and several years ago switched its focus from the PHEV conversions to full electrification. 

The electric Gatik trucks have a range of about 120 miles, but they typically do about 300 miles daily in current operations. Many companies like Walmart have announced sustainability plans which in Walmart’s case include going carbon neutral for all operations by 2040. Part of the plan includes getting vendors such as Gatik to do the same.  In Louisiana, Gatik will begin operations between a Walmart supercenter that is also equipped as an automated distribution center and one neighborhood Walmart store. Additional stores for deliveries will be added over the coming months.

Gatik CEO Gautam Narang acknowledges that large scale electrification in the medium duty commercial vehicle market is really just ramping up now. Narang expects to announce a partnership with a leading manufacturer of light and medium commercial vehicles in the next month or two. This will provide vehicles that are equipped to support automated driving including redundant actuators for braking and steering as well as power supplies. However, even with an OEM partner, he expects to continue working with Via for at least a few more years to bridge the gap. 

In the next several weeks Gatik also plans to start operating some of its trucks without safety drivers in Arkansas. Gatik may not be as big as Waymo or some of the Chinese AV developers like Baidu

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, but it might be on track to developing a very viable business niche in automated driving.



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