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Walmart Automates ‘Middle Mile’ With Driverless Delivery Trials

Next year, Walmart’s delivery ambitions will enter uncharted territory.

The big-box retailer will break new ground in 2021, expanding experiments with autonomous self-driving trucks to include operating these vehicles without a driver for the first time. In partnership with Gatik, which specializes in providing self-driving delivery trucks for the “middle mile” of the supply chain, Walmart is leveraging the company’s multi-temperature autonomous box trucks to transport goods in its hometown of Bentonville, Ark.

The retail giant began the autonomous vehicle pilot with Gatik last year close to its headquarters to ship customer orders on a two-mile route between a dark store—which is a store that stocks items but isn’t open to the public—and a Neighborhood Market location in Bentonville.

Since the launch, Walmart says it has safely driven more than 70,000 miles in autonomous mode with a safety driver present in the car.

But with the new development, both Walmart and Gatik are taking a major leap by taking the driver out of the equation.

Alongside the updates in Arkansas, Walmart is expanding its pilot with Gatik to Louisiana 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 collect their orders.

Like the original Arkansas trial, the Louisiana test will operate the autonomous box trucks with a safety driver included in the vehicle. The Louisiana trial is set for a 20-mile route between New Orleans and Metairie.

Gatik, which was founded in 2017 but came out of stealth in June of last year, initially started with a fleet of light commercial trucks and Ford Transit Connect vans that were outfitted with its self-driving system. Customer feedback prompted the company to add bigger temperature-controlled vehicles.

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The box trucks range in size between 11- and 20-feet long and can deliver ambient, cold and frozen goods. Each vehicle completes between six to 15 runs a day. Gatik has used its box trucks to deliver more than 15,000 orders for multiple customers since operations began, the company says.

Tom Ward, senior vice president of customer product, Walmart U.S., wrote in a company blog post that the retail giant will continue “working with Gatik to monitor and gather new data to help us stay on the leading edge of driverless autonomous vehicles.”

Ward noted that with 90 percent of Americans living within 10 miles of a Walmart, “a closer store isn’t always the answer,” alluding to the idea that sometimes shoppers may just be looking for a convenient pickup location.

While much of the discussion surrounding retail delivery tends to focus on the last mile, the middle mile that Gatik is trying to shore up is becoming more vital as more shoppers pick up items in-store, particularly during the holiday season. In a blog post announcing the expanded partnership with Walmart, Gatik CEO and founder Gautam Narang, said he believes automation is the only way to solve the middle-mile problem, which driver shortages and an e-commerce uptick have only exacerbated.

Narang outlined the benefits to retailers and their customers. “Driverless operations will enable our customers to realize the full potential of autonomous delivery: significant cost savings which can be passed onto the consumer, a high-functioning hub-and-spoke distribution model and short delivery times which keep consumers satisfied,” he wrote.

Walmart’s trials with Gatik represent just one aspect of its interest in autonomous vehicles. Most recently, Walmart announced it would roll out autonomous electric vehicles in a new partnership with self-driving car company Cruise in Scottsdale, Ariz., early next year. Walmart plans to use Cruise’s fleet of Chevy Bolt electric vehicles, which run entirely on renewable energy and furthering its pledge to reach zero emissions by 2040.

The retailer is seemingly testing out as many different autonomous delivery providers as possible to gauge how the delivery system works and whether it can be scaled. Walmart already works with Nuro in Houston; Udelv in Surprise, Ariz.; Ford in Miami; and Google spin-out Waymo in Chandler, Ariz.

Nuro may be the Walmart partner to watch, as it has the first and only federal exemption for an autonomous vehicle granted by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The company operates its R2 vehicle fully autonomously on public roads in three different states—California, Texas and Arizona—with no drivers, no occupants and no chase cars. With actual government approval, the $5 billion company has the greatest chance of scaling further and disrupting the delivery ecosystem.

As Walmart continues its tests, retail’s other power player unveiled its own updates to its driverless delivery initiatives. Amazon and its self-driving autonomous division Zoox, which it acquired earlier this year for an estimated $1.2 billion, unveiled a four-person “robo-taxi,” a compact, multidirectional vehicle designed to move people in dense, urban environments without a driver. The car can travel up to 75 miles per hour and can run up to 16 hours on a single charge.

Thus far, the vehicle is designed for ride-hailing in urban environments, and hasn’t been tied to any delivery projects yet. Zoox said the robo-taxi is currently testing in three cities—Las Vegas as well as Foster City and San Francisco in California.