The global wave of electrification and automation of transport has already started impacting companies. Canada’s biggest oil company, Suncor Energy, is among the ones that will face serious disruptions due to autonomous technology. The first oil sands mining company, to adopt the technology, announced that it plans to layoff about 400 heavy-equipment operator positions during the next 6 years, while phasing in its new fleet of autonomous trucks. Suncor Energy will start deploying more than 150 self-driving trucks, which will decrease its work force already in 2019.

Expected layoffs

According to Suncor’s COO, Mark Little, there are about 500 roles that will get eliminated through this, but will add about 100, leading to a net change of approximately 400 positions. Currently, Suncor has 9 autonomous trucks used for moving building materials at a job site in Alberta.

The company has been testing 400-tonne capacity Komatsu trucks for almost 4 years. It will continue expanding its fleet starting at the North Steepbank mine at its Base Camp north of Fort McMurray. Each job site will have its own control centre to manage the Komatsu autonomous trucks, specifically programmed for optimum performance under the respective conditions.

Autonomous trucks can operate 24 hours a day, making stops only for fuel. Their tires are also 40% more long lasting, as these trucks avoid sudden acceleration and abrupt steering, common for human drivers. Particularly these characteristics will decrease operating costs and increase job site safety. Thus, even at $5 million each, without obstacle detection systems and computer gear required for autonomy, they will be a worthy investment for Suncor. The company will start replacing trucks that have reached the end of their useful life.

Union resistance

Suncor’s drivers will be the only stakeholders that will be worse off from the efficiency gain, which is causing frustrations among the employees. A truck driver at Suncor believes that if given the same conditions as the autonomous trucks, they will also be more productive.

The Unifor union also criticised Suncor’s plan to test self-driving trucks, due to the expected job losses. Suncor’s reply to these allegations focused on reassuring the union that they will be working together to minimise the impact on jobs and retrain workers whose positions are endangered.

The company has been preparing for the autonomous shift by hiring truck drivers on a temporary basis. The earliest period when the autonomous fleet will cause layoffs at Base Point will begin in 2019.

Often, people hear about how productive these autonomous trucks are. If given the same conditions… that these autonomous units are running in, I’m sure we’d be more productive as well. It’s two different running conditions… and we’re constantly stressing. Give us the same conditions and give us some opportunities… We can show how productive our workforce can be.

Emerging industrial autonomous trucking

While Suncor is preparing for its autonomous future, their Japanese suppler Komatsu is celebrating its 10th anniversary of the first autonomous truck deployment at a Codelco copper mine in Chile. 10 years since its first truck, there are now more than 100 industrial autonomous trucks operating at 4 Rio Tinto iron ore mines in Australia, the mine in Chile and at Suncor.

A milestone in industrial trucking was reached recently, when Rio Tinto announced that its autonomous haul trucks managed to move one billion tonnes of material without being involved in any injury accidents. The Australian mining giant plans to expend its fleet of 80 trucks to 140 by the end of 2019.

Snezana Sokolovska

Snezana has extensive international background and business media experience. She is covering e-mobility, autonomous vehicles and smart technology at Electric Think.

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