A 12,000-square-foot Toronto building has been converted to become the Palo Alto company’s new Canadian research facility and operations centre servicing Loblaw’s autonomous delivery fleet

A SIGNIFICANT NEW-ECONOMY MAKEOVER is playing out in a modest, nondescript, one-story industrial building in the west end of Toronto.

Until recently, delivery vans and small trucks left the property carrying loads of men’s dress shirts destined for stores like Harry Rosen and Holt Renfrew. But since early this year, it’s been a hub for a small fleet of some of the world’s most sophisticated box trucks — autonomous light-duty delivery vehicles guided by radar, Lidar, cameras and satellite navigation — doing on-road deliveries from grocery giant Loblaw’s new automated picking facility in northwest Toronto to other Loblaw outlets in the city.

The 12,000-square-foot building, the former home of Lipson Shirtmakers, is the new Canadian research facility and operations centre for Gatik, the short-haul logistics company that’s using AVs to service retail clients like Walmart in cities in the U.S. as well as Loblaw in Toronto.

Nearly $1 million from AVIN

Gatik was founded in Palo Alto, Calif., in 2017 and first set up in Toronto in 2019 (all three of its cofounders are permanent residents of Canada). But only now has it chosen to reveal the details of a partnership with Ontario’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network (AVIN) — including nearly $1 million in funding from AVIN through its R&D Partnership Fund — that has helped drive Gatik’s research, testing, hiring and real-world work with Loblaw in the region.

“With this partnership with the Ontario government, and the grant specifically, we’re focusing on accelerating research and development related to winterizing our technology,” says Richard Steiner, Gatik’s head of policy and communications, in an exclusive interview with Electric Autonomy Canada. “It’s absolutely huge for us.”

Gautam Narang, CEO and co-founder, Gatik

In a statement announcing the partnership and the funding — which was actually awarded in late 2019 and matched with $8 million in Gatik’s own money — Gatik CEO and cofounder, Gautam Narang, stressed the work’s strategic significance.

“Over 30% of global commercial vehicle operations take place in winter conditions, and we want to serve this market,” said Narang. “The operational experience and data gathered in Ontario gives us a strong understanding of how inclement weather affects our vehicles’ movements and gives us a competitive edge in the B2B short-haul logistics market across North America.”

Taking Ontario technology global

Along with AVIN’s funding, the award provides access to R&D resources, tools and equipment available at AVIN’s six regional technology development sites in the province.

“The R&D Partnership Fund is really focused on connecting high-flying companies, helping them develop and commercialize leading-edge technology and get it to the global market,” says Raed Kadri, head of AVIN, noting that both homegrown companies and companies “with Ontario presence” are eligible for the program.

Raed Kadri, head of Ontario’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network (AVIN)

The partnership fund actually consists of two streams — one for co-investments up to $100,000, the second for co-investments up to $1 million, such as Gatik’s. According to a spokesperson for the Ontario Centre of Innovation, which oversees AVIN, to date the combined streams have supported 42 commercialization projects.

Kadri says Gatik’s progress epitomizes Ontario’s goals through the program.

“They’re growing very rapidly, they’ve established roots in our province, they’re hiring in our province, they’re accessing our high-quality talent and they’re selling their technology from our province globally. It’s exactly what we want.”

Research and commercialization

A key for Gatik, according to Steiner, is Ontario’s “progressive” regulatory environment with regards to rules permitting deployment and testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads.

“There’s a really great balance of being able to operate on public roadways in the way that we need to do, but also well-structured in that we have a very strong relationship with the MTO [Ministry of Transportation],” he says. “We share a lot of data with the MTO. It’s a real two-way street in terms of the provision of support and the provision of information.”

To Kadri, that two-way street means “maintaining safety as a major priority but enable innovation.”

In a practical sense, for Gatik, it also has enabled the company to begin serving a commercial client like Loblaw while at the same time using the data gathered through its experiences over two Toronto winters to further its R&D.

“We’re always gathering data across every single journey we take with every single vehicle that we have deployed,” says Steiner.

Gatik’s new facility reflects a similar combination of research and commercial activity.

According to Steiner, it’s a flex office-warehouse space with room for 10 autonomous box trucks, additional testing vehicles and approximately 60 staff. Right now, Gatik has about 25 employees in Toronto. It says it expects to double that this year.

“We’re going to have a serious amount of engineering talent in there, but it’s also going to exist as an operational deployment hub for our vehicles [operating] in the Greater Toronto Area,” he explains.

“It’s got a large garage section. There’s also an interior opening in which we can drive testing vehicles actually into the office space.

Richard Steiner, Gatik’s head of policy and communications

“So, you’ll seamlessly have engineers working from the desk and moving over to the vehicles, that sort of thing.”

This article was originally published on March 2 2021, on the Electric Autonomy Canada website.