Gatik focused on automating the ‘middle mile’

Autonomous driving technology company Gatik has made a splash in recent months, first deploying the first autonomous delivery vehicles in Canada with Loblaw and then partnering with Isuzu to produce a fully integrated autonomous medium-duty truck. The California tech company was launched in 2017 and has opened a second office in Toronto, Ont., where much of its research and development is conducted. Today’s Trucking caught up with Richard Steiner, Gatik’s Toronto-based head of policy and communications, to discuss the company’s approach to the market and where driverless delivery vehicles make the most sense.

(Photo: Gatik)

Today’s Trucking: Why has Gatik identified the medium-duty segment as the best opportunity for automation? Steiner: It was the fastest and most effective way to get to market with a commercially viable product – which we were able to do fairly rapidly – on public roads delivering revenue-generating orders.

The fixed route approach we take at Gatik, with fixed, repeatable routes, is where we can add the most value to a supply chain. Constraining the routes to the types of distances the middle mile encompasses, from single digit to 300 miles (480 kms) means we’re able to map out routes faster from a technological perspective. It takes us four weeks to map out routes on behalf of customers.

Gatik focused on automating the ‘middle mile’Richard Steiner (Photo supplied)

Longhaul trucking is a very different ballgame.

The autonomous technology required for Class 8 trucks to operate is limited to highway driving, longhaul, coast to coast, with thousands of kilometers to cover. Before the big rig gets onto the highway the [autonomous driving technology] stack is not engaged, and after it leaves, it has to disengage. Today’s Trucking: How do you define middle mile?

Steiner: Transporting goods between fulfillment centers or robotic picking facilities to a retail store or distribution center. What we are able to do is ensure goods are available in a one- to two-hour window versus days. Today’s Trucking: Do you eventually foresee being able to do home deliveries?

Steiner: We are specifically B2B, not B2C. That’s where we live and succeed. It’s considerably simpler and more effective to deliver hub-to-hub versus B2C, because if you consider the prospect from an engineering perspective of mapping out every consumer location, it’s a vastly more complex engineering task.

Gatik focused on automating the ‘middle mile’

Today’s Trucking: How has the Loblaw deployment been going?

Steiner: We announced last November we’ve been on the road since the beginning of 2020, working with one vehicle, and due to the success of that work we went live with five vehicles early this year. They’re delivering goods from an automatic picking facility in the GTA to five retail locations. Five of our autonomous box trucks, five routes.

Currently all of our vehicles in all jurisdictions have safety drivers aboard. In December of last year, we received regulatory approval from the state of Arkansas to remove the safety driver. Today’s Trucking: Obviously the most significant cost savings will come when the safety driver isn’t required.

Until then, how are your customers achieving an ROI? Steiner: Yes, the most significant cost savings are realized when the safety driver is removed. But because of the way we integrate our heavily optimized delivery routes, we gain efficiencies from the get-go.

There are fuel savings and other efficiencies. They operate like busy bees behind the scenes all day long. Today’s Trucking: What’s the safety driver’s role if they’re not actually driving?

Steiner: It’s to ensure all critical driving functions are operating safely and to monitor data points. Today’s Trucking: You recently announced a partnership with Isuzu to integrate your technology into its medium-duty trucks. Is that an exclusive deal?

Steiner: This is the first time, from a medium-duty perspective, the industry is implementing OEM-grade redundancies. This is going to allow us to accelerate commercialization. We do have discussions underway with other OEMs.

Today’s Trucking: Gatik was founded in California, but has a Toronto office. How has Ontario been to work with on autonomous vehicles? Steiner: We love Ontario and we love Canada.

From a regulatory perspective the province is well structured to be permissive and progressive. Unmanned or fully autonomous vehicles are permissible today on public roads, provided we have the approvals in place. We share vast amounts of information with the province and have a great relationship with the Ministry of Transportation.

The talent, funding and regulatory environment make Ontario a great place to be. A lot of our R&D talent is housed in Toronto and we’ve been expanding and hiring very aggressively. Today’s Trucking: With so many autonomous driving start-ups in the market, what makes Gatik unique?

Steiner: Every single delivery we have ever made has been revenue-generating. We are solving real world problems, with real customers facing real challenges and generating real revenue. We have seen an uptick of orders of 30-35% since the onset of the pandemic.

Today’s Trucking: Speaking of challenges, how have your trucks fared in the Canadian weather? Steiner: Inclement weather is something we’re working on. We’ve been through two winters in Canada.

The rain, snow, sleet, fog, has certainly been challenging but the data we’ve gathered not only sets us apart being able to operate in Canada, but it gives us a competitive edge.

If you want to operate autonomous delivery vehicles long-term at large scale, you need to address inclement weather.