Gatik And Walmart Notch A Big Win In Kansas With New Law Enabling Driverless Vehicle Deployment

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Gatik announced today that it will be expanding operations to Kansas following the signing of Senate Bill 313 into law by Governor Laura Kelly. The law enables the deployment of Gatik’s SAE Level 4 driverless medium-duty trucks on public roads in the state.

In a press release, Gatik said they “worked closely with Walmart

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and key stakeholders including the Kansas Department of Transportation, the Governor’s office, leadership in the House and Senate and the Kansas Sheriffs’ Association to develop and propose legislation that prioritizes the safe and structured introduction of autonomous vehicles in the state.”

A robust dialogue about all things Level 4 will launch with a Kansas “autonomous vehicle advisory committee” established in the law, consisting of state government representatives, labor interests, vehicle makers, system developers, industry associations, and others. Gatik said they will work closely with state and local authorities to provide education and training sessions to law enforcement and first responders prior to commencing operations.

The legislation is broader than the Gatik use case specifically, stating that “the driverless-capable vehicle cannot exceed 34,000 pounds on tandem axles.” This implies that robo-taxis are good to go, but excludes tractor-trailer rigs, which have more than two axles. At least for now: the law also says that this provision “shall expire and have no effect on and after July 1, 2025.” It seems the legislators were not yet ready to take on the larger rigs.

Gatik’s policy partnership with Walmart is a formidable one, ultimately enabling the rapid deployment and scaling of its solution across an increasing number of markets. Gatik and Walmart have worked together before with state legislators and regulators across multiple jurisdictions. In 2019, Walmart and Gatik proposed legislation in Arkansas for commercial operations to commence. In 2020, the companies received approval by the Arkansas State Highway Commission to remove the safety driver from Gatik’s autonomous trucks, following the completion of 18 months’ successful operations. Richard Steiner, Gatik’s Head of Policy, noted that “this new legislation in Kansas sees the Sunflower State become the 25th in the U.S. to allow fully autonomous vehicles to operate on public roads.”

Gatik is a member of the Autonomous Vehicles Industry Association, a major player in the Level 4 policy space, whose members include a broad array of Level 4 system developers across multiple use cases for both goods and people movement.

Gatik started commercial operations in 2019. Since then, the company says they have “achieved a 100 percent safety record ​​across multiple operational sites in North America including Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Ontario.” Last year, in a milestone for the entire Automated Vehicles (AV) industry, Gatik became the first company to operate fully driverless commercial deliveries on a Walmart middle mile delivery route. Their operational design domain focuses exclusively on fixed, repeatable delivery routes, which are a good fit for Walmart operations between distribution centers and regional retail stores. Gatik is backed by Koch Disruptive Technologies, Innovation Endeavors, Wittington Ventures, and others. Its industry partners include Ryder, Goodyear

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and Isuzu.

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The AV Policy Landscape Is Shifting

In the early days of AV, prior to the prevalence of startups, it was mainly the car companies approaching states and localities seeking clearance to operate automated vehicles, both robo-taxis and privately-owned vehicles. The car guys are still highly focused on Level 3 allowance, as evidenced by the recent launch of the Mercedes Drive Pilot Level 3 system in Germany, following a long and concerted effort between European car makers and German authorities.

In the U.S. at least, the players at the Level 4 policy table have shifted strongly to the trucking startups in recent years. These startups sought and were granted permission to conduct testing on public roads with safety drivers monitoring developmental self-driving systems.

Now, the progress from testing to actual deployment has brought in a very new crop of folks. I’m talking about the end-users of driverless trucks, the shippers, retailers and Ecommerce companies that are increasingly adopting autonomous technology to address critical pain points in their supply chains. These companies, many of whom are household names, are focused on serving their end-customers. They are sophisticated players, well known to politicians and state governments. That’s the situation here in terms of Walmart’s involvement with Gatik on the policy front, and they are not alone.

I’ve just finished a few days in Wurzburg, Germany at the CARHS Auto(nom) Mobil conference on automated driving. This was a superb event consisting of key decision makers and experts from government and industry focused on the passenger car space. During the conference they wrestled with the myriad challenges in introducing privately-owned Level 4 cars at some future time, based on a decades-long interplay between government and industry as car tech evolved. There was a time when the vehicle regulatory space consisted only of these types of traditional players.

Today’s news paints a different picture as to who may be carving out the Level 4 regulatory landscape of the future. Shippers and trucking fleets who have been announced as partners by the AV trucking developers include Amazon

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, FedE

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x, UPS, Knight-Swift, and US Xpress. The list is growing quickly. These are core stakeholders: their operations touch regular folks who don’t care “how” they got their package, they’re just glad it showed up quickly and didn’t cost too much to deliver. The retailers in particular have much at stake, as their brands are emblazoned on these driverless trucks. They are highly motivated to ensure that the operations are safe and these trucks are “good neighbors” on the road.

I expect the U.S. Federal government will eventually take definitive steps in Level 4 allowance. But in the current vacuum of Federal action, states are “where it’s at.” Freight interests are in the forefront, supported by public authorities intent on solving supply chain challenges. Gatik’s partnership with Walmart is a model which benefits both parties immensely – facilitating the rapid expansion of Gatik’s autonomous delivery network for B2B short-haul logistics, and enabling more of Walmart’s customers to benefit from the advantages of autonomous delivery in the near-term.

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