Autonomous trucks — sometimes called driverless trucks — are just another advance in the evolution of the supply chain.
Two Arkansas companies, Walmart Inc. and J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., are at the forefront of this advance, partnering with Silicon Valley companies to test and develop the technology.
Rich Steiner, the head of policy and communication for Gatik, Walmart’s partner in this effort, said consumers demand faster access to goods, which puts pressure on the supply chain to keep up.
“That is why this technology is so important,” he said. “The shift in consumer behavior is only going in one direction. Consumers are only going to remain more demanding. They want goods with speed and efficiency.”
J.B. Hunt also emphasizes efficiency. It has partnered with Waymo, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet Inc., to test autonomous technology on an interstate route in Texas.
“As we further our mission to create the most efficient transportation in North America, it is important for us to be involved early on in the development of autonomous technologies to ensure that the implementation will improve our operational efficiency while also enhancing safety,” J.B. Hunt Chief Sustainability Officer Craig Harper said in an email to Arkansas Business.
Gatik has teamed with Bentonville’s Walmart for the past three years on a pilot program using Gatik’s autonomous box trucks to make “middle-mile” deliveries. The trucks deliver goods from a Walmart fulfillment center, also known as a dark store because it doesn’t serve customers directly, to a nearby Neighborhood Market in Bentonville. (See Gatik Trucks Go Right.)
The first phase of the trial has gone so well that the two companies recently added another route in southern Louisiana, in which goods are delivered from New Orleans to a store in Metairie.
The trial has provided data from more than 200,000 miles of accident-free deliveries, the companies said. In the early stages, a “driver” was behind the wheel of the truck for safety, but as the trial progressed, the driver moved to the passenger seat.
“With Gatik, we’ve successfully completed phase 1 of trialing the use of autonomous box trucks in our operations,” a Walmart spokesperson said; executives were unavailable because of a quiet period before it reports quarterly financial results.
“This phase was focused on validating the technology and use case, which was placing completed orders on a fixed route between a dark store and a live store. We’re proud of the milestones we achieved in phase 1, including validating the technology, driving more than 200,000 autonomous miles, achieving an industry first of removing the safety driver, and trialing two potential use cases in Bentonville and New Orleans.”
J.B. Hunt & Waymo
Waymo is working with Lowell’s J.B. Hunt on deliveries made on a 250-mile interstate route between Dallas and Houston.
Harper said the driverless trucks have delivered 862,000 pounds of freight on time without an accident since the program started in June 2021. J.B. Hunt recently announced it was extending and expanding its partnership with Waymo.
“We support the development of highly automated technologies and driving systems that enhance safety, help avoid traffic disruptions, and serve as a viable and cost-efficient option for our customers and their supply chain,” Harper said. “We want to remain involved in the early market strategy so we can safely and reliably introduce this technology for certain types of freight.”
Walmart uses a “hub-and-spoke” model to distribute goods, and the Walmart spokesperson said the Gatik trial showed positive results.
“We learned how using an autonomous refrigerated box truck to drive fixed, repeatable routes helps us efficiently execute a hub-and-spoke fulfillment model which results in more pickup and delivery availability for customers,” the spokesperson said.
A Waymo spokesperson said its partnership with J.B. Hunt has been fruitful.
“Our work with J.B. Hunt has been invaluable to our learnings about the trucking industry,” Waymo said. “We learned our technology was clearly prepared and able to well serve the industry, and we were also able to identify constraints that need to be addressed for commercial scale and will be working through them in our future pilots together.”
Tackling the Supply Chain
On Waymo’s website, the company shows off its trucks’ capabilities in nifty graphics. The trucks use lidar — an acronym for “light detection and ranging” — radar and cameras to tell the vehicle’s computer brain how to navigate safely in all weather and lighting conditions.
Gatik uses similar technology.
“We’re facing one of the most dire supply chain challenges of our lifetime,” a Waymo spokesperson said. “Shipping volume continues to rise, while the supply of drivers and trucks fall. Autonomous driving technology can help bridge these gaps in the future and supplement the ever-growing need for freight movement across our country.
“Autonomous driving technology can also help build on all the safety advances the trucking industry has already introduced to help reduce fatalities on our roadways and make every mile, including the over 300 billion miles traveled by trucks each year, safer.”
The routes that the autonomous trucks take, either Waymo on Interstate 45 or Gatik’s route in Bentonville, have been thoroughly scouted and mapped. In the beginning, each autonomous truck had escort vehicles and a safety driver.
Harper said J.B. Hunt realized it had “just scratched the surface” with its early results, which is why it extended its partnership with Waymo. He thinks autonomous trucks could be an option for specific highway routes in the future.
“It’s not as easy to pinpoint an exact time frame for when autonomous trucks will be a viable option since there are so many factors that play a role in their implementation,” Harper said. “With evolving technology, operating models, infrastructure needs, cyber security concerns, regulation and public acceptance, we anticipate a slow controlled growth in the number of autonomous tractors on the road in certain lanes with specific types of freight. We believe there will be a need for skilled professional drivers for many decades into the future.”