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.

TuSimple on YouTube

Yesterday I went to a neat SXSW panel on autonomous trucking. Both Waymo and TuSimple had representatives. TuSimple, in particular, has some neat YouTube videos of their self-driving trucks doing the rounds in Tucson, Arizona.

I was impressed that Chuck Price from TuSimple mentioned they have 50 trucks on the road and are already hauling real freight between Arizona and Texas. Sounds like California is coming soon.

Autonomous trucks keep on trucking.

Startup Watch: Otto

Otto is a hot new startup in the autonomous trucking space. They just landed a splashy article on the front page of The New York Times.

Otto, led by 15 former Google engineers, including major figures from the search company’s self-driving car and maps projects, is aiming at the long-haul freeway driving that is the bread and butter of the commercial trucking industry.

Beware any startup that is lead by 15 people, even if they are all former Google engineers.

That said, their approach seems terrific.

Their beachhead appears to be with owner-operators who drive their own trucks, because autonomy can help them stay on the road for more hours every day, which means more money in their pockets.

Also, presumably, those individuals are less risk-averse than big trucking companies that might have legal liability worries.

The article plays up the trucks vs. cars race to autonomy, but that seems like more of a sideshow to me.

Autonomous trucks are related to, but distinct from, self-driving cars and it makes sense that startups would exist to specifically target that market. Ultimately, I doubt Otto cares whether it beats Google cars to market, as long as they can gain a lock on the trucking industry.