Self-driving vehicles are ahead of flying cars


Clifton Li

On the “we-were-told-there-would-be-jetpacks” spectrum of protracted transportation breakthroughs, self-driving vehicles are slowly creeping up on flying cars…

But while Waymo, a unit of Alphabet Inc., was dealing with a departing CEO and training its algorithms to recognize traffic cones, a rival that you’ve probably never heard of quietly took the drivers out of its “driverless” rigs. Gatik, which hauls cargo for Walmart, Loblaws and a handful of other massive retailers, told me it made the switch recently on a few of its routes in Arkansas, putting it on a very, very short list of human-free transportation…

It’s important to note that Gatik’s autonomous goals are far more modest than Waymo’s. Like Nuro, it forgoes the passenger entirely, choosing instead to focus on schlepping around goods. And it further narrows its lane to middle-mile transportation, essentially shuttling its trucks to and from two fixed points, say, a distributing center and a big-box store…

Granted, Gatik still has human chaperones, one dedicated per vehicle, but they’re patching into the vehicle from a remote location. If the truck runs into any kind of trouble, it executes a “graceful recovery,” essentially pulling over and pinging its overseer, like a lost teenager dialing dad. The truck will suggest a workaround that the chaperone can approve or revise. Uber drivers may eventually be out of luck, but these chaperones, housed in the ride-hailing version of a call center, will soon be one of the hottest occupations going.

For a retail empire, the economics spool up quickly. Their supply chains will go driverless long before the airport taxi queue and the savings will be both immediate and easy to model. As the autonomous driving field narrows, Gatik’s sneaky move to the front will no doubt be noticed by investors, possibly some of the same crew that has poured $5.7 billion into Waymo since last summer.

I’m waiting for the first report in print of a traffic cop pulling over a driverless truck and getting into an argument with a chaperone over the radio.

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