The future of autonomous driving has arrived in the form of 440-ton capacity Komatsu ore-hauling trucks at Suncor Energy’s oil sands mines in northern Alberta.
The company says the behemoths are safer and more efficient; however, the union fears the loss of up to 500 jobs with more to come as other oil sands mines copy Canada’s biggest integrated oil and gas company.
Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chief energy officer at the University of Houston, says automation is already transforming the oil and gas industry.
“There are three big trends that we are seeing in all of energy whether it is solar, whether it is battery storage, whether it is oil and gas,” Krishnamoorti said during an interview. These include digitalization, big data/analytics and automation. “Those three trends seem to have really picked up pace over the last five years in a way I don't think anyone anticipated.”
Suncor began experimenting with autonomous driving technology for huge dump trucks four years ago. In late January the company announced the test was a success and 150 autonomous trucks would be introduced over the next six years, starting with its North Steepbank mine. The mine contains 659 million recoverable barrels of bitumen and is located 25 km north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada.
Greater efficiency that leads to lower costs is generally a big driver of new technology adoption and the autonomous trucks don’t stop for restroom breaks or lunch, according to Suncor spokesperson Erin Rees. “The trucks run 24/7 and that means that they only stop for maintenance or to refuel, so that will result in a lower operating cost,” she said during an interview. “We don’t have specifics on it right now but I think the timeline speaks for itself there in terms of operating efficiency and running 24/7.”
Unifor’s Ken Smith, whose union represents the drivers, thinks the autonomous trucks are overrated and that the test was not a fair apples-to-apples comparison. For starters, he says, the driverless trucks require smooth surfaces and well maintained roads, while the regular trucks work on less than ideal roads.
“We’re not on an equal footing with these trucks right now. They’re driving on what I would consider tabletop roads where the rest of the mines are slugging through dips and dives,” Smith said during an interview.
Trucks drive along a pre-defined route, while other vehicles that enter the area are equipped with GPS location technology and are monitored from a control center.
“The trucks will react if there’s an obstacle in the way, but everything that enters the mine area is tracked and monitored and controlled,” Rees said. They are very reliable and predictable in how they operate.”
The company began evaluating autonomous trucks in 2013, and since 2015 every new truck has come equipped with autonomous capability, getting ready for the day when the fleet would be ready to drive itself.
Rees says increased safety is the principal reason Suncor is adopting the new trucks. While she didn’t have testing data available, the company is confident driverless trucks will lead to fewer accidents. “Autonomous haulage systems reduce interaction between people and equipment, which decreases incident rates and injury potential—helping us ensure everyone goes home safely at the end of every day,” Suncor COO Mark Little said in a press release.
Carol Howes of Energy Safety Canada says industry is increasingly concerned with “process safety,” which is removing workers from mechanical and machine-driven processes where they can be injured. “It’s not the human element as much as it is the [danger posed by the] actual mechanisms,” she said. “There’s definitely an increased focus on safety in the industry, and automation will increase the safety activities in that way.”
Gil Mcgowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, says the Canadian labor movement supports greater safety, but wonders whether eliminating jobs is the way to reach that goal. “There are all sorts of things you can do with automation and remote sensing,” Mcgowan said. “But at the end of the day, you can’t have really safe workplaces without the human element.”
Smith estimates that his union has between 400 and 500 members driving the trucks, but only 77 will remain and they will all be temporary workers, a contentious issue in the oil sands. “They started hiring these people two years ago so that when the reductions happened, they wouldn’t have to pay severances and they wouldn’t have pension or seniority or recall issues,” Smith said.
Drivers who lost their job will not be let go, but will be retrained to operate other heavy equipment at the mine, according to Rees. “Training programs are being designed to support the transition to the new technology, and we’re working with the union on strategies to make sure that we can minimize that impact to employees as much as we can.”
Smith disagrees. “We found out about the final job cuts at the same time as the press release went out. There has not been one solitary discussion,” he said. “That [press release] is full of misinformation.
Unifor worries that more layoffs could inflict more damage on the local economy. “Fort McMurray is not a retirement town; most people sell their homes and move on,” said Smith. “Home prices are down probably between 30% [and] 40% already. With these layoffs I think the bottom will completely fall out of that market. It’s the workers and the community that are going to suffer for this one.”
Suncor’s Little added, “To be the very first company to test these systems and implement them at a commercial scale in our oil sands mining operations speaks to our long history of embracing and implementing game-changing technologies. It’s simply part of our DNA.”
With more automated ore-hauling trucks likely to arrive at other oil sands mines over the next five to 10 years and automation of other tasks to reduce costs and improve safety on the horizon, local workers will be looking over their shoulders at more “game-changing technologies” on the way.
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