​​Suncor initiating roll out of driverless heavy haulers across its oilsands fleet

Image: Komatsu

Just one day after announcing the official start of operations at the new Fort Hills oilsands mine, operator Suncor Energy says it will start replacing what appears to be its full heavy hauling mining fleet with driverless trucks.

Suncor has been running a field pilot of autonomous haulage systems since 2015 and said on Tuesday that it has validated that the technology can be used safely, effectively and efficiently in its operating environment.

“Evaluations have shown that the technology offers many advantages over existing truck and shovel operations, including enhanced safety performance, better operating efficiency and lower operating costs,” the company said in a statement.

CIBC World Markets said in a spring 2017 report that on a scale of 1 to 10 of major oilsands cost reductions achievable with existing technology, autonomous hauling ranks a number 10.

“Suncor currently has about 100 trucks and could add about 10 to 20 more with contractors. With Fort Hills, it could add about 50 more trucks, bringing the total fleet to about 150,” analysts wrote.

The company announced today that it will proceed with phased implementation over the next six years, starting with its North Steepbank Mine. The company said it expects to deploy more than 150 autonomous haul trucks in the full program, which it estimates to be one of the largest investments in electric autonomous vehicles in the world.

CIBC said that “Rio Tinto operates the largest autonomous hauling fleet in the world and reported in its 2015 annual report that through the introduction of 71 autonomous hauling trucks, it has cut its load and haul operating costs by about 13 percent and increased utilization by about 14 percent.

“Suncor expects to start seeing some efficiency gains from the autonomous fleet with the goal of about five to ten percent cost improvement. In our view, there is upside to this estimate based on comments by Rio Tinto.”

CEO Steve Williams noted that “Suncor was the first company to transition from bucketwheel to truck and shovel operations in the early 1990s and we're continuing to be on the leading edge of oil sands technologies today.”

The company said it will “continue to work with the union on strategies to minimize workforce impacts,” and that “current plans show that the earliest the company would see a decrease in heavy equipment operator positions at Base Plant operations is 2019.”