Autonomous vehicle startup Gatik announced today that it has raised $25 million in a Series A funding round led by Wittington Ventures and Innovation Endeavors. The company did not disclose its valuation in the deal.
Gatik also announced a new agreement with Loblaw Companies, Canada’s largest supermarket operator, to create a fleet of self-driving delivery vehicles. The announcement follows a ten-month pilot in Toronto. Gatik already has a similar agreement with U.S. giant Walmart.
Gatik cofounder and CEO Gautam Narang describes his company’s goal as addressing the “middle mile” of autonomous transport, between long-haul trucking and last-mile delivery robots. Gatik’s fleets will also be limited to fixed routes, which Narang describes as a realistic approach to the current state of self-driving technology.
“Over the last few years everyone realized, okay, this is a very difficult problem to solve,” says Narang, who has researched robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. “So the narrative has changed.” The greater-than-expected challenge of creating autonomous vehicles has forced developers including Tesla to repeatedly delay the rollout of the technology.
By limiting its driverless fleets to fixed routes, Narang says, “we can get rid of a lot of unknowns, a lot of uncertainties. We get to pick intersections. We can avoid schools and fire stations.”
Those unknowns, often referred to as “edge cases,” present the greatest challenge to fully self-driving vehicles, which must be able to correctly interpret and react to any conceivable traffic situation. Edge cases might include construction work, confusing lane markings, or a sudden snowstorm disrupting visibility. Minimizing such edge cases is one reason autonomy leader Waymo chose to pilot its robotaxi service in Chandler, Arizona—a place with wide, well-maintained roads and nearly no inclement weather.
Gatik began operating autonomous vans for Walmart in July 2019, shuttling customers’ online grocery orders between a large central warehouse and local stores. For now, those vans use human safety drivers, who are responsible for monitoring the autonomy system’s behavior and taking control when necessary.
Gatik will provide similar services for Loblaw stores. While Walmart’s vehicles are Ford vans retrofitted with autonomous driving tech, the Loblaw fleet will consist of larger, refrigerated box trucks. Those trucks will begin operating over five routes in early 2021. The Loblaw vehicles will also have human safety drivers, who Gatik describes as “co-pilots.”
As with companies like Instacart, Gatik’s business has been juiced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everything is centered around the spike in online grocery orders” from shoppers isolating at home, Narang says. “I want my groceries in the next hour or two, and at the cheapest price. And retailers are struggling to fulfill that demand.”