Driverless trucks: Peering into the technological future of the oilsands

Driverless trucks could be an opportunity to boost productivity

by James Rose
A driverless Komatsu truck.

Suncor Energy Inc. has entered into a multi-year agreement with Komatsu Ltd to purchase new heavy haulers for its oilsands operations north of Fort McMurray, Alberta. — Photo courtesy Komatsu

Suncor Energy Inc., Canada’s largest oil company, has entered into a multi-year agreement with Komatsu Ltd., the Japanese manufacturer of earthmoving and construction machines, to purchase new heavy haulers for its oilsands operations north of Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Suncor spokesperson Sneh Seetal said via email that each of the new trucks will be “autonomous-ready,” meaning they are capable of operating without a driver. Seetal added that “the technology is proven and has worked in other parts of the world where there are hard-rock mining conditions–such as Chile and Australia."

"The oilsands conditions are soft-rock mining conditions,” said Seetal, “and so we needed to look and test first how the technology worked in those conditions. We still need to conduct a thorough commercial and sustainability evaluation before we consider integrating this technology into our fleet.” Suncor expects this testing to begin in the fourth quarter of 2015 and continue into 2016. If the company proceeds with the technology, implementation would take place over a number of years.

The move to driverless trucks comes as Suncor and its competitors in the oilsands look for opportunities to cut costs and boost productivity, an effort that has intensified amid the year-long plunge in oil prices. The steep fall in prices has already forced the sector as a whole to lay off thousands of workers, with Suncor itself letting go 1,000 people this year.

Driverless trucks aren’t new to the resource industry. Mining giants such as Rio Tinto Group and BHP Billiton Ltd. use them at many of their operations, and oilsands producers see driverless trucks as an obvious way to boost productivity.

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