September 9, 2023

Tyson Foods proteins moving on Gatik robot trucks


Breakfast sausage, hot dogs and frozen chicken breasts from Tyson Foods are beginning to move autonomously on Gatik AI trucks in Northwest Arkansas. The three-year contract could expand nationwide.

Gatik has covered a 7.1-mile route from a small warehouse to a Walmart retail store in Bentonville, Arkansas. It will serve Walmart neighbor Tyson as a third-party carrier using four Gatik trucks equipped with autonomous capability.

Gatik’s four-year project with Walmart — using driverless trucks since 2021 — ended with the closing of the warehouse where it was picking up loads. The startup expects to expand autonomous operations with Walmart but declined to provide details of what that will look like.

Much attention in autonomous trucking goes to Class 8 autonomous developers. Two of those — Aurora Innovation and TuSimple — forecast driver-out commercial routes by the end of 2024. 

With less fanfare and no meaningful competition, Gatik has operated short-haul repeatable routes for up to 18 hours a day for Walmart and the Loblaws supermarket chain in Canada. In March, it added grocery giant Kroger as a customer for autonomous deliveries in Dallas.

Gatik counts thousands of accident-free driverless trips and more than 500,000 deliveries with and without safety monitors. Robot drivers are exempt from hours-of-service regulations limiting humans to 11 hours of driving in a 24-hour period.

“We’re really building on a lot of the operational learnings that we’ve gained over the past few years in northwest Arkansas,” said Richard Steiner, Gatik vice president of government relations and public affairs.

Reconfiguring supply chain transportation for Tyson

In adding lane density, Gatik is using Class 7 box trucks, weaning shippers from using Class 8 day cab semi-trailers on shorter runs. 

“We’re able to offer a much more responsive and flexible solution with a slightly smaller truck but still deliver a substantial load very frequently for the customer,” Steiner said. “This is the first time that anyone, to the best of our knowledge, has done that in the autonomous trucking space.”

A typical Tyson truckload consists of 30 pallets. But it’s not always easy to fill a 53-foot refrigerated trailer for a short haul, Patrick Simmons, Tyson’s vice president of transportation, told FreightWaves.

“Almost 47% of our total miles are what we refer to as shuttle runs,” Simmons said. “That’s taking loads from a production facility out to one of our distribution facilities or a finishing plant where [chicken] can get breaded and those types of things.”

Using a smaller truck to haul 10 pallets for 10 miles makes sense. High-frequency autonomous runs use less fuel and create fewer emissions, he said.

“We figure that just one Gatik truck equates to about 700 truckloads a year, and that gives us a lot more efficiency, better turns on our trailers and helps us reduce our carbon footprint,” Simmons said.

4 autonomous trucks for Tyson for starters

Tyson operates the nation’s eighth-largest private fleet, with 1,300 trucks and 4,500 mostly refrigerated trailers. It is helping Gatik purchase four Class 7 Isuzu FVR cabovers upfit for autonomy.

“There are multiple facilities in Northwest Arkansas where we’re starting so we can monitor it,” Simmons said. “Across the country, we’ve identified 40 locations where we could do similar operations.”

But first things first. Autonomous trucks assigned to Tyson will start with safety drivers as the pilots with Walmart and Loblaws did. Steiner would not share the timeline for when driver-out operations to Tyson storage facilities in the Rogers and Springdale, Arkansas, areas would begin.

“There is an exponential decrease in the time frame from safety driver to driver out as we expand our operations,” he said. 

Autonomous trucking involves much more than the truck. The warehouse needs to be prepared. Bills of lading will change, as will communication between the carrier and the plant. A driverless truck passing through a guard shack is another challenge.

Repurposing Tyson driver jobs  

Tyson has hired 250 private fleet drivers so far this year and expects that number to grow. Adding autonomous trucking could change some driving jobs but won’t eliminate any, Simmons said. 

“We’re going to repurpose what they do,” he said. “I have worked with drivers for over 20 years and one of the biggest complaints I hear is ‘I have to drive 400-plus miles a day to make any money.’”

Tyson wants its private fleet to carry 50% of its total freight compared to 40% presently. As autonomous trucks take on the short-haul trips, human drivers will get more long-haul runs.

“This will allow us to take that same driver and make them more of a regional driver, that 400- to 500-mile average distance,” Simmons said.

Tyson has no immediate plans for converting to long-haul autonomous trucks. Its proteins are the refrigerated freight on a hub-to-hub autonomous pilot with carrier C.R. England and autonomous trucking developer Kodiak Robotics.

“There’s not enough drivers for us to do all that we want to accomplish,” Simmons said. “That’s why we want to learn where [autonomy] makes sense. Can we use technology today to help us be more flexible, responsive and nimble across the country?”

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Click for more FreightWaves articles by Alan Adler.


The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

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