​Driverless trucks are an immediate opportunity for oilsands cost savings: CIBC

Image: SMS Equipment

On a scale of one to 10 of being able to help oilsands producers save costs—today—autonomous hauling systems are a 10, according to analysts with CIBC.

It’s a statement that may already ring true for Suncor Energy, which is currently operating a test fleet of autonomous haulers at its base oilsands mining project, and has been testing the technology since 2015.

Suncor has said that it may proceed with progressive implementation this year, which is also the timing for the start-up of the new Fort Hills mining facility.

CIBC analysts noted in an oilsands technology update issued earlier this year that already, every truck that Suncor is adding or replacing in its fleet has the ability to go fully autonomous.

“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,” they wrote.

“The decision to use the autonomous hauling system technology at Fort Hills has not been made at this time.”

While deploying autonomous hauling has some hard costs including wireless networks and GPS systems, the main benefits come from efficiency gains by improving safety, minimizing downtime, lowering maintenance work and ultimately lowering the kilometres driver per tonne of material, CIBC notes.

According to Alberta Energy Regulator data, in 2016 Suncor hauled 128.3 million tonnes of oilsands ore at its Base Operations.

“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,” CIBC says.

“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.”

Earlier this year Suncor filled the position of director of autonomous haul systems, to focus on advancing "systems and processes to fully develop and prepare for implementation of the autonomous haul system technologies," according to the web posting.

CEO Steve Williams described autonomous hauling as a potential “margin-type improvement,” while discussing the company’s third quarter 2016 results.

“I like those projects because they reduce our costs and they are things we can control ourselves.”

There are trade-offs to going autonomous, CIBC says, including potential technology downtime and increased cyber security risk.

However, for an industry keenly aware of the need to reduce costs in the context of $50 WTI, “in terms of achieving commerciality on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being commercial, CIBC believes autonomous hauling would be a 10, and implementable immediately.”

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