As promised, Walmart, in partnership with startup Gatik, has begun making fully driverless panel van deliveries between its own locations on a fixed 7-mile loop announced. Despite these restrictions, the Bentonville, Arkansas route includes “intersections, traffic lights, and junctions on dense city streets,” the companies said. It’s more good news for the advancement of self-driving vehicles after GM’s Cruise launched self-driving taxis last week for testing.

The Gatik trucks bring grocery orders from a Walmart fulfillment center (dark store) to a nearby Walmart Neighborhood Market grocery store in Bentonville, the host city of the company’s headquarters. The route covers the “middle mile” of goods transport between warehouses and branches. The program effectively kicked off after approval by the Arkansas State Highway Commission in December 2020 and has been driverless since this summer.

The new service is part of Walmart’s transition to a hub-and-spoke model with warehouses or fulfillment centers closer to the customer. This means smaller warehouses, so “it requires more and more trips from the fulfillment centers to the pick-up points,” said Gatik CEO Gautam Narang CNBC. “That’s where we come in.”

Walmart isn’t the first supermarket to be completely driverless like Kroger teamed up with self-driving grocery delivery startup Nuro in 2018. However, when it started, Nuro’s delivery vehicles were tiny microvans, while Walmart and Gatik use large panel vans.

Walmart and Gatik are running similar trials in New Orleans with electric cases that deliver directly to a customer’s pick-up location. However, these are currently operated with safety drivers on board, making the Arkansas test the first truly driverless route. “Our outreach in Bentonville is not a one-time demonstration,” said Narang. “These are frequent, revenue-generating daily trips that our trucks safely drive under various conditions on public roads and demonstrate the economic and technical advantages of completely driverless operation on the Mittelmeile.”

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