The Middle Mile

Gatik, a Palo Alto start-up, made the news recently with autonomous box trucks focused on “middle mile” logistics.

I confess I was previously unfamiliar with the term “middle mile”, which apparently refers to the fixed routes between centralized distribution centers and dispersed retail locations.

The advantage, I take it, is that “middle mile” routes are limited and fixed, which would dramatically simplify technical challenge.

The box trucks should also be simpler to handle than articulated tractor-trailers.

The middle “swivel” point between a tractor and trailer adds a huge degree of complexity for control systems — not only laterally, but also vertically. The back of the trailer literally bounces up and down.

Box trucks are essentially rigid bodies in that way, like cars.

One of the big questions in autonomy is how and how much it is possible to simplify the technical challenge of autonomy. Tesla approaches this by limiting self-driving mainly to highways. Waymo limits its vehicles to specific geofences in a few metro areas. Voyage tackles this deploying relatively low-speed vehicles in gated retirement communities. Other vehicles work on sidewalks, or farms, or warehouses, or mines.

Gatik is betting that “middle mile” logistics will be a favorable niche.

I’d love to see some way to quantify how simple an environment is.

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