Automated Vehicles Tackle the Big Jobs - InformationWeek

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Data Management // AI/Machine Learning
10:15 AM
Lyndon Henry
Lyndon Henry

Automated Vehicles Tackle the Big Jobs

Perhaps a precurser to automated vehicles on the highway, massive driverless trucks are already at work in the mining sector.

While the automobile industry has been making gradual progress toward bringing "robocars" to commercial availability, for practical use these motor vehicles still seem to be at the experimental and testing stage.

Credit: Komatsu
Credit: Komatsu

Meanwhile, it turns out that another form of autonomous vehicles -- trucks -- have actually been in "real life", commercial deployment for years. In applications often called "autonomous hauling systems" (AHS), robotic trucks have been operating with success in the mining industry for the better part of a decade. The most prominent successful examples are in:

  • Chile: Since 2008, mining company CODELCO has been using "monster" driverless trucks within an AHS system supplied by Japanese vendor Komatsu Ltd. to transport minerals at its Gabriela Mistral (Gaby) copper mine.
  • Australia: Since 2013, mining companies BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto have deployed an AHS, with vehicles and systems supplied by US heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar as well as Komatsu, predominantly in the Pilbara iron ore belt of Western Australia. For Rio Tinto, the robots account for about 20% of its entire Pilbara fleet.

These operations now have dozens of autonomous trucks now on the job, and expansion plans under way. According to, Fortescue Metals Group, another major player in Australia's mining industry, has announced plans to launch an AHS with autonomous trucks at its Solomon mine, also in Western Australia.

According to a 2013 article in, AHS systems offer an array of advantages, including:

  • Increasing output by 15-20%
  • Decreasing fuel consumption by 10-15%
  • Decreasing tire wear by 5-15%
  • Increasing truck use ("up-time") by 10-20%
  • Reducing maintenance costs by 8%
  • Improving safety

"Eliminating breaks and other productivity improvements let the trucks work two to four more hours per day" reports the article, with the potential of significantly increasing a mine’s output and reducing haulage vehicle fleet size.

The shift to driverless haulage has resulted in significant workforce downsizing. The Australian publication Business Spectator reported last year that Rio Tinto normally needed about 60 drivers for every 15 trucks, but the use of autonomous trucks reduced this to eight operators, although with larger maintenance crews. The company's Pilbara mining manager, Michael Gollschewski, told the Spectator that "Roughly speaking there's around a third less people involved in load haul but the overall skill levels of that group increase…We probably employed less people than we would have done."

The prospect of dramatic reductions in workforce requirements has spread to other industries such as petroleum recovery in Canada’s oil sands. Last summer, Canada’s largest oil company, Suncor Energy Inc., announced a move to driverless trucks with an agreement with Komatsu.

As the Calgary Herald reported, Suncor CFO Alister Cowan said the company intends to replace its fleet of heavy haulers with autonomous trucks “by the end of the decade.” According to Cowan, “That will take 800 people off our site...At an average [salary] of $200,000 per person, you can see the savings we’re going to get from an operations perspective.”

So far, commercial autonomous truck deployment has been confined to mining and similar controlled environments. But what about over-the-road trucking? That's definitely in development, and major vehicle manufacturers such as Daimler and Mercedes have already introduced working prototypes. Last year, Daimler premiered its autonomous Freightliner in Nevada, a robotic 18-wheeler, albeit with a driver in the cab as backup.

A 2013 article on the website points out that experiments abroad with driverless truck convoys (also referred to as “platoons”) "have been under way for years." Volvo and other major players are involved in a European project known by the acronym Sartre (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) which has successfully tested driverless trucks in a "road train". And Japan's government-backed New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO) has tested "a caravan of self-driving trucks."

The prospect of driverless trucking has intensified fears of job losses in a vast swath of the U.S. workforce. In a widely cited and quoted article ominously titled "Self-Driving Trucks Are Going to Hit Us Like a Human-Driven Truck", writer Scott Santens, focused on possible workforce downsizing and warned, “We are potentially looking at well over 10 million American workers and their families whose incomes depend entirely or at least partially on the incomes of truck drivers, all of whom markedly comprise what is left of the American middle class."

Those anxieties may be warranted, but other experts are less pessimistic. As technology blog writer Megan McArdle points out, autonomous trucks work fine on major highways and freeways, but what happens when they must navigate the ordinary street system? She and other observers predict human truckers will still be needed to drive 18-wheelers to their final destinations when they leave the highway.

Besides, McArdle notes, safe highway operation requires "3-D mapping" of "every inch" of those roads so that the autonomous vehicle "has a database of every stationary object, from traffic lights to guardrails." That would enable the vehicle "to devote its processing power to analyzing the movement of objects that aren't in its database."

"Such mapping is incredibly labor intensive" says McArdle. Thus "other jobs will be created, in designing and maintaining the new systems. Someone has to map all those roads."

The need for future data analysts and other high-tech jobs is similarly predicted by others, such as Dr. Carla Boehl, a lecturer in Australia at Curtin University’s school of mining. Quoted by the Financial Times, Dr. Boehl predicted that "All this technology, bit data and analytics will actually increase the number of jobs in more analytical work, it is a change from trade jobs to more analytical ones."

Boehl cited growing student interest in the new technology. "The students themselves are interested, they want to do their thesis in this field and learn more about automation…At a post-graduate level we are starting to do more work regarding maintenance, automation, we do a lot of big data understanding, what is big data, what algorithms can be used to support systems."


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