Tyson testing driverless trucks in Rogers, Springdale

A Gatik and Tyson truck pulls into Tyson Foods Berry Street Production Facility in Springdale, Arkansas in this undated photo. (Courtesy of Tyson)

Starting this week, Tyson Foods, Inc. is partnering with Gatik AI, Inc. on a test program putting autonomous trucks on Northwest Arkansas roadways.

The trucks will run on short-haul, repeated routes in the Rogers and Springdale areas. The trucks will operate between the company’s distribution and storage facilities, hauling various company brands including Tyson’s Jimmy Dean and Ball Park products.

A safety driver will be present in the truck cab at first to monitor the system and take over if needed. The trucks are expect to run 18-hours a day. One truck is operating currently and three more are expected to begin running sometime this month.

In an interview, Patrick Simmons, vice president of transportation for Tyson Foods, said the company has struggled to keep drivers in the face of a national truck driver shortage that only seemed to worsen during and after the covid-19 pandemic. He said the autonomous trucks will be used on shorter, less desirable routes, freeing up the company’s drivers to make longer hauls that require a human driver’s skill.

“We’re not stopping hiring human beings driving trucks,” Simmons said.

He said when the vehicles were eventually cleared to operate without a driver in the cab the vehicles will be monitored remotely in case of a problem.

Simmons added the company opted to work with Gatik primarily because of the company’s safety record. He said the move is part of Tyson’s company wide initiative to modernize and become more efficient across the board. In December 2021, the company said it would invest $1.3 billion through 2024 in automation in a move to both increase production and reduce labor costs.

California-based Gatik provides short-haul, autonomous, middle-mile logistics for companies including Kroger and Georgia-Pacific.

In Bentonville, Walmart Stores Inc, has been operating trucks in cooperation with Gatik without a driver behind a wheel since August of 2021. The company ran the trucks in the city for 18 months before gaining approval from the Arkansas Highway Commission to begin operating without safety drivers.

This is the first time Tyson has used Gatik trucks equipped with commercial-grade autonomous tech in its fleet. In April, truckload carrier C.R. England Inc., a Tyson contractor, began a pilot program with Kodiak Robotics, Inc. to ship Tyson products in the Dallas and San Antonio Texas area.

In recent months Tyson Foods has struggled with profitability, reporting losses in two consecutive quarters. It has closed two poultry plants, one in Van Buren and plans to close four more including one in North Little Rock and two in Missouri. It also recalled employees from South Dakota and the Chicago area to work in its headquarters and has said it will trim executive positions there.