Walmart testing driverless trucks in Bentonville

This undated file photo shows Walmart's sign in front of its Bentonville headquarters.

A driverless truck delivery company that Walmart Inc. works with in Bentonville has been operating vehicles without a driver behind the wheel since August, the retailer said Monday.

The trucks run on a single delivery route several times daily on public roads between a Neighborhood Market and a Walmart "dark store," or store that is now being used solely as a fulfillment center, the companies said in a joint news release.

Walmart did not immediately respond to questions including how many trucks it's using or whether it owns a stake in the company as it does with another driverless vehicle firm.

The Arkansas Highway Commission gave approval for the company, Gatik, and Walmart, in December to use the box trucks without a safety driver after they had successfully operated in the city for 18 months.

The companies said that the commission's approval makes Gatik the first autonomous trucking company allowed to remove the safety driver from a commercial delivery middle-mile route "anywhere in the world."

Middle mile refers to the part of the supply chain in which items are transported between warehouses or from warehouses to stores. In comparison, last-mile deliveries are made from stores or fulfillment centers directly to customers' homes.

Autonomous delivery helps Walmart fill online orders faster, the companies said.

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"Through our work with Gatik, we've identified that autonomous box trucks offer an efficient, safe and sustainable solution for transporting goods on repeatable routes between our stores," said Tom Ward senior vice president of last mile at Walmart U.S.

Ward said in December that Walmart would begin testing the vehicles on a longer route -- from Metairie, La., to New Orleans, a distance of about 20 miles -- early this year. The pilot program would initially use safety drivers, he said.

Gautam Narang, Gatik's co-founder and chief executive, said operating in Bentonville without a safety driver "signifies a revolutionary breakthrough for the autonomous trucking industry."

"Our deployment in Bentonville is not a one-time demonstration," Narang said. These are frequent, revenue-generating daily runs that our trucks are completing safely in a range of conditions on public roads, demonstrating the commercial and technical advantages of fully driverless operations on the middle mile."

Walmart and Gatik said they worked with city officials and emergency services as they mapped out a strategy to put the vehicles on the road. Gatik said it will continue holding informational workshops concerning its autonomous operations.

A spokeswoman for the office of Bentonville Mayor Stephanie Orman confirmed that the companies did consult with the city in planning the project.

The Bentonville Police Department did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Arkansas' General Assembly paved the way for companies to start pilot programs using autonomous vehicles with legislation enacted in 2019. The new law contained the proviso that the state's highway commission must approve each testing program, which could only operate up to three autonomous vehicles.

The law was amended this year, mainly to allow approved pilot programs to operate an unlimited number of autonomous vehicles.

The Arkansas Highway Commission's conditions for approval include providing proof that the program's insurance complies with the minimum liability requirements set by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Gatik said it serves Fortune 500 companies in multiple markets in the U.S. and Canada, and has a 100% safety record. The firm, which has offices in Mountain View, Calif., and Toronto, began commercial operations in 2019.

Gatik isn't the only autonomous vehicle company with which Walmart has partnered.

In April, Walmart and other, unnamed companies collectively invested $750 million in Cruise, a maker of all-electric driverless vehicles owned by General Motors. Walmart started testing Cruise's cars for grocery delivery in Scottsdale, Ariz., in November 2020.

The Bentonville-based retailer has also tested driverless last-mile delivery with companies such as Waymo, Udelv and Nuro.