Technology

Driverless trucks in the oil&gas industry

 By Peter Ward

Canada’s oil reserves are the among the largest in the world, thanks in no small part to the Alberta oil sands, where more than a trillion barrels worth of extremely heavy crude oil is thought to be located. Mining that oil is obviously a gigantic operation, and takes a huge number of trucks to transport oil and other materials. In recent months, new types of trucks have been used in Alberta—and they don’t have any drivers behind the wheel…

(Cover photo by www.time.com)

Autonomous trucks are being used more and more in major industries, and have also been trialled to transport goods. The trucks in Alberta are being used by Canadian oil company Suncor Energy, in a year-long pilot that started last year. The trucks are manufactured by Japanese company Komatsu, which has said its autonomous dump trucks had “hauled over one billion tons of overburden and minerals at large-scale mines” in Australia and Chile. The Suncore pilot project is being carried out with a view for the Canadian company to buy six 400-ton autonomous haulers from Komatsu for its mining operations in northern Alberta.

Autonomous trucks may be more of a reality in mining operations right now. The mining company Rio Tinto has 73 giant autonomous trucks hauling iron ore 24 hours a day at four mines in Australia. The company is taking automation a step further: the trucks work alongside robotic rock drilling rigs, and the company is upgrading its locomotives to haul the iron ore hundreds of miles to port, without a driver and with the cargo loaded automatically. The reason mining is most suited to autonomous trucks is the regulated nature of the operations. There are far less outside influences in a mine than on a busy road, for example.

Mining companies are rolling out autonomous trucks, drills, and trains (credit: www.technologyreview.com)

But any industry which uses trucks and other large vehicles for transportation could benefit from the advantages a driverless truck brings. A convoy of self-driving trucks recently drove all the way across Europe to the Port of Rotterdam. Labor costs are reported to represent 75 percent of shipping costs when goods are moved via trucks, and those savings are just the start of what driverless trucks can bring any industry. For oil and gas companies, a major attraction may be the fact they are far more efficient.

The Komatsu dump trucks are equipped with vehicle controllers, a GPS system, an obstacle detection system and a wireless network system. They are operated and controlled by a supervisory computer, which sends information on target course and speed to the trucks. The trucks are automatically guided to loading spots, and are then sent information on a specific course to the dumping spot afterwards. “An autonomous haulage system can drive productivity improvements, as well. An autonomous truck doesn’t need to stop for lunch breaks or shift changes. It always works within specified operating parameters, saving wear and tear and improving availability,” truck manufacturer CAT says on its website.

There’s also an argument to be made that driverless trucks are more secure and safe than conventional vehicles. “From a safety perspective, the fleet control system prevents collisions with other dump trucks, service vehicles or other equipment at the mining site. In case an obstacle detection system detects another vehicle or person inside the hauling course under AHS operation, the vehicles will reduce speed or stop immediately, making the system extremely safe and reliable,” the Komatsu website says.

A self-driving truck, during a 2015 test drive (credit: Houston Chronicle)

The trucks are also able to operate in tough conditions, such as high altitudes and sparsely populated desert areas, and reduce the need to find a workforce in these places. Emissions are also saved, as the trucks always take the most efficient route possible. The trucks have opened up large debates about technology taking jobs away from human workers. Drivers in Alberta have already expressed grave concerns about the trucks being used by Suncor. “Trucks don’t get pensions, they don’t take vacations, it’s purely dollars and cents,” Ken Smith, president of Unifor 707A in Fort McMurray, told CBC News. Canada’s largest private sector union, Unifor has said automated haulage system trucks are a greater threat to jobs than any downturn in the oil industry.

But manufacturers of the trucks have hit back at those claims, saying the trucks create different jobs. “These newly improved machines don’t suddenly design, manufacture, train, maintain or fix themselves,”said Raleigh Floyd Jr., spokesperson for Komatsu told CBC. “Now, multiple people can work on multiple tasks, instead of multiple people working on a single task. Project areas that were shorthanded no longer have to make do,” explained Floyd Jr. Automated trucks have already saved mining companies money and energy, and have begun to make their way into the oil and gas world. The objections from worker unions are unlikely to halt their introduction, particularly as energy companies look to streamline their operations as oil prices continue to recover.

SEE MORE: The rise of natural gas trucks by Peter Ward

about the author
Peter Ward
Business and technology reporter based in New York. MA in Business Journalism at Columbia University Journalism School 2013. Five years experience reporting in the U.S., the U.K., and the Middle East.