A Caterpillar 793F autonomous hauling truck deployed in Australia, via the company
Extracting oil from oil sands requires some of the most massive trucks and heavy equipment on Earth. Now, in a bid to cut costs, a Canadian company wants to have those trucks drive themselves.
According to a Bloomberg report, Canadian oil sands giant Suncor, which is "Canada’s largest energy company by market value," is currently testing haul trucks that are run by computers. Extracting bitumen from sands requires first digging up an enormous amount of the sand itself, with about two tons of sands required to produce one barrel of oil.
Digging up all of that sand is the job of huge excavators, which then offload into gigantic haul trucks that transport sands to extraction plants. Time is money, and in this case being faster means carrying as much sand as possible. Haul trucks can carry hundreds of tons at a time, and are in constant motion, moving back and forth between excavator and extraction plant.
Now, driving a truck that's as large as a house is almost assuredly a badass thing to do—if you want, jobs are available—but for oil sands companies, it's also an expensive position to fill. Heavy equipment operators don't come cheap in the first place, with salaries reaching into six figures. Add in the cost of housing oil sands workers in far-flung locales and you've got a pretty big outlay on your hands.
Bloomberg notes that Suncor's bottom line has been hurting of late, and the firm thinks giving truck driving jobs to computers could help. It's not alone, as an expert told Bloomberg that such systems can cut costs by 15 percent. But what does a robotic dump truck look like? Thankfully, the mining industry is competitive enough that heavy equipment firms actually make commercials for things like this. (Who knew?) Here's one from Komatsu, which says its automated equipment had already moved 200 million tons of material as of April, when the video was published:
And here's a similar pitch from American manufacturer Caterpillar, which hits really hard on the advantages of networked logistics:
If anything, those videos should reinforce the sheer enormity of mining and oil sands operations. At the end of the day, the equation is pretty simple: Making more money means moving more material, which means bigger and bigger equipment. It's not cheap; large haulers run millions of dollars a piece, and maintenance is a massive undertaking. A heavy equipment mechanic who regularly posts on reddit offers a good glimpse into the scale of these things, as well as the cost—he recently mentioned that tires cost $108,000 to replace.
At such scales, small efficiency gains netted from better-networked operations could have huge payoffs. And as strange as it might seem to have steel behemoths driving around without a driver, their routes through mines are pretty straightforward. While Suncor claims it's the first to use automated trucks in oil sands operations, they've become more and more popular in mining operations worldwide, so they must work. At the end of the day, it's just more evidence that if something can be automated, it will be.