At first glance, the delivery truck slowly turning out of the parking lot of Loblaw Companies Ltd. headquarters might seem unremarkable. But look closer and you may notice that the steering wheel turns itself. There is no one in the driver’s seat.
The driverless vehicle is one of five that Canada’s largest grocer has on the roads across Toronto and surrounding suburbs, delivering products to its stores. In partnership with Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup Gatik, Loblaw has been testing the autonomous driving technology in Ontario since 2020, with a human “safety driver” on board. In August, the company began the next phase of its test – without the driver.
According to Loblaw L-T, the step is believed to represent the first entirely autonomous commercial delivery in Canada.
“Autonomous vehicles are a reality, and the retail industry, the transportation industry, will be part of that evolution,” said David Markwell, Loblaw’s chief technology officer. “This keeps Loblaw at the forefront of that evolution.”
During the tests in Ontario, the five Gatik-powered vehicles completed more than 150,000 deliveries with a human on board. In April of this year, Gatik says, it received approval from Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation to operate fully driverless vehicles without the presence of that safety driver.
Gatik CEO and co-founder Gautam Narang says the company worked closely with the province, providing safety data and information about its tests.
The province does not appear keen to discuss the initiative, however. Reached by telephone, Transportation Ministry spokesperson Aruna Aundhia said she was “not at liberty” to confirm any details about the approvals granted to Gatik to operate its trucks. Provided with nearly 48 hours to respond, Ms. Aundhia also would not answer questions about whether any other companies or applicants besides Gatik are testing such technology on Ontario roads. She directed The Globe and Mail to a regulation under Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act, establishing a pilot project to evaluate the use of automated vehicles on highways, and wrote in an e-mail that any other information would be provided only through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In addition to securing provincial authorization, Gatik undertook reviews with municipal authorities, and police and emergency services agencies in Peel Region, Brampton and Mississauga. According to the company, in the testing phase, the deliveries never had a safety-related incident. Loblaw also commissioned a third-party safety assessment from a technology-services firm, which Gatik passed, testing both the operation of the vehicles and the technology’s vulnerability to hacking.
The Gatik-powered Loblaw trucks navigate with the help of six LIDAR (light detection and ranging) sensors and six radar sensors, as well as 12 cameras. “Each of the objects should be detected by multiple sensors,” Mr. Narang said. Inside the cab of the truck, a black box sits between the driver’s and passenger’s seats, housing the computer that guides the truck.
Because the vehicles travel on fixed routes, Mr. Narang said its autonomous technology can navigate more predictably than situations such as driverless cars steering through traffic in real time. If anything unexpected occurs, such as an unusual obstruction on the road, the truck is programmed to either come to a stop or pull to the side, and a remote supervisor can send instructions about what to do next.
Last year, Gatik also removed its drivers from vehicles making deliveries in Arkansas in a partnership with Walmart WMT-N. Gatik does not build delivery trucks; the company programs driverless technology that powers them. Gatik also has partnerships with pulp and paper manufacturer Georgia-Pacific and shipping company Pitney Bowes, as well as other companies that Mr. Narang said it is not yet disclosing.
“Customers are lining up to adopt this technology,” Mr. Narang said. The labour crunch in the transportation industry has only added to the demand, he said. “Trying to deliver on [customers’] expectations, retailers are struggling. Combine that with the driver shortage, automation is the only answer.”
The news does not mean that robots will be bringing groceries to customers’ doors, however. Gatik and Loblaw have focused on what they call the “middle mile”: fixed short-haul routes that move goods around, in this case from a “picking facility” inside a Real Canadian Superstore in Toronto to other stores nearby.
For Loblaw, the goal is to make its supply chain more efficient, particularly as it competes for e-commerce customers.
“Certainly we saw a big spike in volume through the pandemic. That’s levelled off a bit. But what’s really important to serve our customers is immediacy,” Loblaw’s Mr. Markwell said. “More and more we’re trying to drive to same-day slots for customers, to be able to get what they need that day. The increased frequency of delivery plays right into that that need for immediacy.”
Loblaw’s controlling shareholders, the Weston family, have also invested in Gatik: The company announced the closing of a US$25-million Series A funding round in late 2020. The funding round was led by Wittington Ventures, an investment company owned by the Westons, and Innovation Endeavors. Wittington also participated in Gatik’s US$85-million Series B funding in August of 2021.