Canada’s Suncor to replace truck drivers with self-driving trucks


Canada’s largest oil company announced last week that it will be cutting about 400 heavy-equipment operator positions over the next six years as they phase in a new fleet of self-driving trucks. Suncor Energy, based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, announced on Wednesday that it plans to deploy over 150 driver-less trucks, leading to job cuts starting as soon as 2019.

“We have about 500 roles that will get eliminated through this and we’re going to add about 100. So the net change in our workforce is about 400 positions,” COO Mark Little said in an interview Wednesday. Suncor is the first oilsands mining operation to adopt the technology.

At present, Suncor has nine self-driving trucks moving building materials at a job site in Alberta, making it one of the first companies in Canada to use autonomous trucks, according to Reuters.

As CBC reports, the company has been testing the 400-tonne capacity Komatsu trucks for about four years and has nine now. It announced Tuesday it will gradually build a fleet of more than 150 driverless trucks over the next six years, starting with the North Steepbank mine at its Base Camp north of Fort McMurray.

According to CBC News, each job site will feature its own control center to manage the Komatsu autonomous vehicles, which will be specially programmed for optimum performance in the unique conditions of each job site.

The self-driving trucks can operate 24 hours a day, stopping only for fuel, and their tires even last 40% longer by avoiding the sudden acceleration and abrupt steering caused by human driver error. Because of these statistics, Chief Operating Officer Mark Little believes that the $5 million apiece autonomous vehicles will not only reduce operating costs but increase overall safety at job sites.

To be sure, while the company and shareholders will be delighted by the efficiency improvements, the losers are the company’s employees.

“Often, people hear about how productive these autonomous trucks are,” said Steve Kelly, who is currently a truck driver for Suncor. “If given the same conditions… that these autonomous units are running in, I’m sure we’d be more productive as well,” he said to CBC Radio.

“It’s two different running conditions… and we’re constantly stressing. Give us [truck drivers] the same conditions and give us some opportunities… We can show how productive our workforce can be.”

Predictably, Suncor’s plan to test the autonomous truck systems was criticized by the Unifor union local because of job losses. But COO Little says Suncor is working with the union to minimize job impacts by retraining workers whose jobs will disappear.

The company has been preparing for the switch by hiring its truck drivers, including those at its just-opened Fort Hills mine, on a temporary basis, he added. Suncor said the earliest there will be a decrease in heavy equipment operator positions at Base Plant operations is 2019.

He said the autonomous trucks are so efficient — because they operate 24 hours a day and stop only for fuel — the company will need fewer trucks in the future than it employs now.

Little added that the company will replace trucks that have reached the end of their useful life with new Komatsu trucks. He said they cost about $5 million each, not including the obstacle detection systems and computer gear needed for autonomy.

Meanwhile, Tokyo-based Komatsu this week celebrated the 10th anniversary of deployment of its first autonomous truck at a Codelco copper mine in Chile, noting that more than 100 trucks now operate at four Rio Tinto Ltd. iron ore mines in Australia, the mine in Chile and at Suncor. Komatsu also said tires on its autonomous trucks last 40 per cent longer because the trucks avoid sudden acceleration and abrupt steering.

Also confirming that the future of industrial trucking is driverless, last week Rio Tinto announced that its autonomous haul trucks had achieved a milestone of moving a total of one billion tonnes of material without being involved in any injury accidents.

In December, the Australian mining giant announced it would expand its fleet of about 80 trucks to 140 by the end of 2019. Rio Tinto’s trucks are controlled remotely from its operations centre in Perth, about 1,50kms from the mines, but Little said Suncor is initially going to operate the trucks from control rooms at each mine site.