Gatik, Georgia-Pacific And KBX Announce Commercial Partnership For Driverless Trucks Serving Sam’s Club Stores

Automated Driving System developer Gatik, a pioneer in middle mile logistics, today announced a multi-year commercial partnership with Georgia-Pacific (GP), one of the world’s largest manufacturers and distributors of tissue, pulp and paper-based packaging, and KBX, the transportation arm for Koch Industries. Under the partnership, Gatik will automate part of the GP-KBX transportation network in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, delivering goods across a network of 34 Sam’s Club locations.

Customer Demands Place Extreme Pressure on Logistics

Consumer expectations are reshaping logistics networks, and as a result, retailers are being forced to adapt and change. Consumers want more choice, lower prices and their favorite items made available to them more quickly than ever before. When Sam’s Club is out of stock on a desired item, they miss out on a sale.

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These dynamics are driving the architecture of goods distribution to provide higher trip frequency, shorter routes, and more urban miles. According to Gatik, this is only possible from a cost perspective when utilizing Class 6 autonomous vehicles enabling smaller just-in-time loads. Gatik says this is a great fit with their deployment approach focusing on urban, semi-urban, and highway environments, on known, repeatable routes for short-haul logistics.

“Retailers want a hyper-efficient, customer-centric model designed to reduce overstocked items, create more space for in-demand items and increase sales,” said Gautam Narang, CEO and co-founder at Gatik. “The need is extreme. A pronounced driver shortage and shifting consumer behavior have drastically altered the way goods need to be moved, and our solution is purpose built to address these pain points.”

The old school approach has been to deploy Class 8 tractor-trailers to load up freight meant for several stores and travel to each one in turn. The tractor-trailer scenario made sense because the cost of the driver is amortized across the size of the load. In today’s distribution world, a full-size trailer can be too big, so a more nimble approach is needed. Going driverless with smaller loads is the key to the new strategy. Operations with Gatik’s 26-foot driverless box trucks will increase the number of fulfillment runs to Sam’s Club DFW stores from 1-2 days per week to 2-4 days per week.

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“Our partnership with Georgia-Pacific and KBX is poised to transform regional distribution architecture that has traditionally relied on Class 8 platforms,” said Narang.

An Intricate Dance Across Many Players

Up until now, KBX Logistics, supporting their customer GP, has taken on the task of hiring companies operating Class 8 tractor-trailers to pick up GP goods at their distribution center in Hutchins, TX and deliver to one or more Sam’s Club stores in the area. Sam’s Club is GP’s customer. GP is KBX’s customer. KBX is the customer for the Class 8 truck operators. This may sound complex, but in the short-haul logistics business these types of arrangements are common.

In the new incarnation, KBX is hiring Gatik to deliver GP goods to Sam’s Club stores. The operations involve Gatik vehicles moving Georgia-Pacific shipments from point to point on predefined short-haul routes using a dedicated autonomous vehicle fleet with 26-foot boxes. Typical routes are 50 miles on a single journey. Each truck will be operating on average approximately three runs per day, as much as 300 miles in some cases.

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In 2021 Gatik launched the first fully driverless commercial trucking delivery services for Walmart in Arkansas. To my knowledge, this was the first transition to driverless on a commercial basis for trucking. The DFW operations announced today will commence in July 2022, initially with a safety driver on board before ramping up to fully driverless operations.

For the Walmart deployment, the routes and vehicles were tuned for a top speed of 45 mph. After significant technical work and validation, last year Gatik gave the green light to operating at a top speed of 70 mph. This enables the DFW area operations to include state highways as well as urban and suburban streets.

Smaller Trucks For Faster Scaling

Since its founding in 2017, Gatik has pioneered autonomy for Class 6 box trucks, betting that middle mile logistics on limited and repeatable routes will “break the code” for getting to significant revenue relatively quickly. Gatik is backed by Koch Disruptive Technologies, Innovation Endeavors, Wittington Ventures and others, and partners with industry leaders including Ryder, Goodyear and Isuzu.

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Hayes Shimp, vice president of sales for Georgia-Pacific, said, “We are looking forward to testing this transformational technology to deliver Georgia-Pacific brands like Quilted Northern® bath tissue and Dixie® products to Sam’s Clubs. Once proven, we believe autonomous deliveries will enable us to remove cost and complexity from the supply chain so that we can better serve Sam’s Club and their members.”

Narang offered this perspective: “For a long time, the industry has been looking at the business case for autonomous vehicles from a 0 to1 perspective, focusing on broader operational domain applications like ridesharing and B2C deliveries, where the technology needs to be solved at an immense scale before it becomes commercially viable. This has led to billions of dollars being poured into R&D efforts with relatively limited tangible success. Companies are missing the opportunity to focus on a route-by-route and site-by-site growth strategy, from which the technology can be commercialized, and profits can be generated quickly. Taking a structured approach to the deployment of autonomous technology is central to our business philosophy and grounded in pragmatism. We’ve validated both the technology and the economics in multiple markets.” Given the momentum in EV trucks, he added that “Gatik has the right partnerships and flexibility to transition to an electric fleet when the timing is right for our customers.”

Routes With Texas Roots

Gatik partnered with the AllianceTexas Mobility Innovation Zone to support its expansion in Texas and since 2021 has been operating out of a large facility which houses Gatik’s Texas fleet, operational, technical and maintenance staff. Gatik says operations there are anticipated to create over 500 new jobs by 2025, including operational, technical and business roles.

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Texas has been a hotbed of AV truck activity for the Class 8 Automated Driving System developers. According to Richard Steiner, Gatik’s Head of Policy, it works for them as well: “Texas has a highly supportive regulatory environment with favorable legislation enabling autonomous vehicle deployment. It’s a well-structured model for other states to adopt, and a significant reason as to why Texas has been able to position itself as a leading destination for autonomous trucking. Gatik has received a very warm welcome in the state, and we’re proud to continue to establish a long-term presence here.”

KBX Autonomous Vehicle Program

KBX is a global transportation and logistics solutions provider. Based in Green Bay Wisconsin, KBX Logistics is the KBX business that specializes in trucking transportation solutions. Paul Snider, President of KBX Logistics said, “Our partnership with Gatik will enable us to redefine the traditional Class 8 short-haul market and deliver Georgia-Pacific goods with even greater speed and efficiency. We’re excited to see these operations form the foundation of KBX’s Autonomous Vehicle Program, as we prepare for wider-scale adoption of autonomous trucks to meet customer demand.”

KBX Logistics is the seventh largest privately held third party logistics (3PL) provider in the U.S., delivering over 6,000 loads per day. They don’t own truck tractors or hire drivers; instead, they source freight capacity to fulfill customer needs. The company has historically operated only with Class 8 tractor-trailers; the partnership with Gatik is their first foray into smaller Class 6 trucks.

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Significantly, Snider noted that “KBX Logistics has an active Autonomous Vehicle Program which is looking at Class 8 as well as Class 6 trucking solutions, aiming to prepare KBX’s network for broader AV adoption. This is combined with a focus on how the electric powertrain will evolve to fit a wide variety of freight needs.” I asked him how he and his colleagues came to be convinced Gatik’s driverless-to-be trucks were capable of driving safely and properly on public roads in the DFW area. He noted that gaining exposure to their current driverless operations in Arkansas was the key, adding that this partnership “will enable us to redefine the traditional class 8 short-haul market and deliver Georgia-Pacific goods with even greater speed and efficiency within KBX’s existing logistics network.”

Driverless Momentum

Stating that “smaller loads delivered driverlessly is the key to fulfilling customer appetites” is not just hype cooked up by tech developers. It is being sounded loudly by Walmart, Georgia-Pacific, and Sam’s Club. I have a feeling more voices will be added to this chorus soon.

If these retailers are getting the results they expect from autonomy, there’s every reason to expect that deployments will expand geographically. For Georgia-Pacific in particular, the DFW deployment could be just the start, as GP operates Class 8 tractor-trailers in short haul markets across the country.

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Gatik says this is a commercial partnership generating significant revenue. Competition from other ADS developers may appear as these types of major deals proliferate. For now, Gatik has a first-mover advantage and significant momentum.

If the GP-KBX-Gatik model becomes commonplace for Sam’s Club and other retailers, displacing Class 8 trucking in short haul, the large group of Class 8 automated driving system developers will still have plenty to focus on, given that the volume of freight that needs to move on interstate highways is massive.

Bottom line for the customer: “when I need something, it will be at my neighborhood Sam’s Club and it will be ready to pick it up pretty darn soon.” One can argue how essential this convenience really is, but there is no doubt today’s public expects it. And based on today’s announcement, autonomy will be playing a key role in giving the customer what they want.

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Disclosure: I am an Advisor to Gatik.