Driving into the Future: The Impact of Self-Driving Haul Trucks on Oil Sands Mining Giant, Suncor Energy

Canada’s oil sands mining industry faces the entry of self-driving haul trucks as a means to lower operating costs. In an economic environment of low crude oil prices and an unclear future for oil sands mining, is this an investment Suncor Energy should commit to?

Imagine driving around a sprawling open-pit oil sands mine in a pickup truck, surrounded by haul trucks the size of three story houses. A truck coming towards you quickly makes a left turn down a dirt road towards one of the ore shovels, barely missing you. You later learn that these massive pieces of equipment are operating without a driver – part of an autonomous haulage system (AHS). The rise in development of autonomous, “self-driving” vehicles, as well as the high operational costs associated with mining, has led to the adoption of this technology in the mining industry [1].

Source: https://www.suncor.com/about-us/fort-hills

In recent years, Canada’s oil sands mines have been the subject of environmental and societal controversy [2]. On top of strict Canadian environmental and regulatory measures, the oil sands industry has been grappling with the worldwide drop in crude oil prices. As an operation with enormous upfront fixed costs, combined with high labor costs and operating costs, management constantly seeks to optimize for efficiencies. Automating mine equipment is a source of considerable savings with respect to labor costs and operational efficiencies [1, 3]. As surface deposits are typically located in remote areas and require above average labor costs, fly in/out operations, and residences set up for operators, automating machinery becomes an attractive alternative.

Suncor Energy, one of Alberta’s mining giants, has also made the case that AHS enables efficiencies in mining, while also improving safety and reducing collisions [4]. As reported in the Canadian Mining Journal, “The greatest advantage of autonomous trucks is that they operate predictably, have prescribed route mapping, and employ obstacle detection systems. Reducing the interaction between people and equipment decreases accidents and potential injuries” [5]. On January 30, 2018, Suncor announced that it will be staging a complete roll out of AHS over the next six years, resulting in the acquisition of 150 automated haul trucks that they believe will help the operation to run safely, effectively, and efficiently, but will result in the loss of around 400 jobs [5]. Suncor also cited Australia as a successful example of deployment of AI in surface mining, benefiting from many of the above side effects of machine learning [6].

Source: https://www.suncor.com/about-us/oil-sands/mining

Machine Learning and AI in Oil Sands: Autonomous Haulage System (AHS)

Operating within the pressures of a low-cost environment as described above, management is turning towards AHS. Based on a simple GPS system, trucks need only know three things to operate: where it is, where it needs to go, and what to avoid [4]. While Suncor hasn’t released which specific technology it will deploy, several patent descriptions available online describe the machine learning and continuous GPS monitoring of the truck along its path, with emphasis on collision avoidance and learnings to avoid “obstacles” through the application of buffer zones and safety envelopes of other mining equipment and light vehicles [7, 8].

Source: https://www.studentenergy.org/topics/oil-sands-mining

Recommendations:

With the current economic environment and future of oil supply in mind, my recommendations are:

  1. Suncor should continue to pursue its entry into automation of mining equipment past haul trucks and into other equipment, such as dozers and shovels.
  2. As an alternative to eliminating operators altogether from the operation, studies should be performed on the viability of equipment operators remotely operating from urban centers for more complex equipment (specifically, dozers and shovels).
  3. Eventually have all support staff (geologists and engineers) perform work remotely from urban centers, instead of on-site. This will further benefit the safety, cost efficiency, and mine productivity that is needed to stay competitive in this challenging environment.

Questions for Suncor and the mining industry at large:

In the near term, how will Suncor adjust the rest of its operations to be compatible with the new AHS technology? How will jobs lost be transitioned out of the organization and local economy? Will other technology upgrades be necessary to incorporate AHS into current mining operations and practices (ie, upgrading/changing current dispatch systems and collision avoidance technologies in light-duty vehicles)? While reduced operating costs will surely deliver better value for shareholders, how will Suncor respond to criticism for lost jobs in an already suffering industry and economy? 

In the long term, how will Suncor maintain its competitive advantage and social license to operate as more aspects of its operations move to complete automation? As direct competitors in oil sands begin to adopt similar practices to Suncor, how will they hold their competitive advantage in this low-cost driven commodity space? As well, as Suncor and competitors continue to automate their mine equipment fleets, will governments allow them to continue to operate while depriving locals of employment opportunities?

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Sources

[1] Nebot E.M. (2007) Surface Mining: Main Research Issues for Autonomous Operations. In: Thrun S., Brooks R., Durrant-Whyte H. (eds) Robotics Research. Springer Tracts in Advanced Robotics, vol 28. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

[2] Charpentier, A.D., Bergerson, J.A., MacLean, H.L. (2009) Understanding the Canadian oil sands industry’s greenhouse gas emissions. Environ. Res. Lett. 4 014005.

[3] Kwame Awuah-Offei. (2016). Energy efficiency in mining: a review with emphasis on the role of operators in loading and hauling operations. Journal of Cleaner Production. Volume 117, pages 89-97. ISSN 0959-6526.

[4] Suncor’s website, https://www.suncor.com/en-CA/sustainability/innovative-technologies, accessed November 2018.

[5] “OIL SANDS: Suncor to phase in autonomous haul trucks over six years”. Canadian Mining Journal. January 2018.  http://www.canadianminingjournal.com/news/oil-sands-suncor-phase-autonomous-haul-trucks-six-years/. Accessed November 2018.

[6] Bellamy, D., Pravica, L. (2011). Assessing the impact of driverless haul trucks in Australian surface mining. Resources Policy Journal. Volume 36, issue 2, pages 149-158.

[7] Burns, R.L., Parfenov, V. (2004). US6799100B2. Permission system for controlling interaction between autonomous vehicles in mining operation.

[8] Burns, R.L. (2002). US6393362B1. Dynamic safety envelope for autonomous-vehicle collision avoidance system.

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4 thoughts on “Driving into the Future: The Impact of Self-Driving Haul Trucks on Oil Sands Mining Giant, Suncor Energy

  1. I generally think of mining as a very traditional, ‘old-school’ industry so it’s interesting to consider how technology is reaching this sector!
    On your first question, I think it’s clear that AV will significantly impact operations at any of Suncor’s mines. As a rule, change is hard – usually even harder than was expected at the outset! I expect the biggest challenge Suncor will face is negative publicity from any layoffs that come as a consequence of this initiative. I wonder if reinvesting some of the cost savings of these vehicles could be applied towards job re-training for the drivers?

  2. These huge haul trucks are impressive! Personally I think autonomous driving will revolute this heavy trucks industry first, since there are less scenarios needed to be considered than traditional passenger vehicle. Suncor definitely to adapt its operations to be compatible with AHS, for example, it probably needs to upgrade the oil field in a more machine friendly way (such add machine recognized sign). It probably also needs to have a central control center that can control remotely every haul trucks in the field.

    These truck drivers will probably lose their jobs in the future and it is not only problems in the oil industry. It is basically in every industry. Therefore, in the long-term, our fundamental society probably needs to be changed.

    In the long term, technology in AHS will be competitive advantage in this industry. Suncor probably needs to collaborate with a AI company or develop the technology expertise by itself to main the competitive advantage.

  3. Thank you for this article – it is something that I hadn’t thought much about, but I am really happy I had the chance to learn more through this article. I think your long term questions are especially interesting. Maintaining a competitive advantage will definitely pose a challenge. I think that the first step is to move quickly but safely. Safety needs to come first when it comes to autonomous driving, the brand can be severely damaged by negative reputation issues, such as something going wrong with the safety aspect. In order to keep a competitive advantage, safety must come first. Jobs will unfortunately be lost as this automation becomes more popular, but some jobs will also be gained in terms of creating the technology and materials needed to build this automation. Opening up these job opportunities to those who are losing their jobs at Suncor to automation, could be key. Overall, thank you for this awesome article!

  4. Thank you very much for this article. I enjoyed it very much. Your question regarding Suncor’s ability to maintain its social license to was especially interesting. Sustaining the social license to operate is imperative and should be a key priority for Suncor as it moves to commercialize and deploy their AHS technology. My experience in the oil and gas industry, specifically my experience in managing governmental stakeholders has thought me a few lessons that I would like to share:
    a) Identify key stakeholders that might influence (or become roadblocks) Suncor’s social license to operate. This would include government officials, community leaders, and the press
    b) Educate key stakeholders early regarding the development of this disruptive technology and how it may impact them, both positively and negatively.
    c) Have a transition plan in place, with emphasis on re-skilling workforce that might be affected by the introduction of this technology. This plan must be executed well in advance of the transition
    d) Build goodwill with the local community through Corporate Social Investment programs

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