A little while back I had a disagreement with an article over on Quartz about the number of jobs about to be lost to autonomous vehicles. It’s not that I don’t think any jobs will be lost – quite the contrary, I think we’ll lose a bunch, it’s just that I don’t think it’ll happen overnight. But it’s already starting, in the Canadian oil sands.
Oil companies often use the big earthmoving dump trucks to shift the massive amounts of hydrocarbon-saturated sand around their job sites, and it turns out that a computer operating the trucks can do it a lot cheaper, and a lot more efficiently, than a person. And thus, the revolution begins, as noted by the Calgary Herald:
Suncor Energy Inc., Canada’s largest oil company, confirmed this week it has entered into a five-year agreement with Komatsu Ltd., the Japanese manufacturer of earthmoving and construction machines, to purchase new heavy haulers for its mining operations north of Fort McMurray. All the new trucks will be “autonomous-ready,” meaning they are capable of operating without a driver, Suncor spokesperson Sneh Seetal said.
The move to driverless trucks comes as Suncor and its competitors in the oilsands look for opportunities to cut costs and boost productivity, an effort that has intensified amid the year-long plunge in oil prices. The steep fall in prices has already forced the sector as a whole to lay off thousands, with Suncor itself letting go 1,000 people this year.
Suncor plans to replace up to 800 drivers with the trucks, Suncor’s Chief Financial Officer told investors last week, hoping to find huge savings with GPS-guided trucks, as it’s already paying its drivers an average salary of $200,000 a person.
And while all that job loss is tragic, it’s nothing new, economically speaking. In addition, it sounds like autonomous technologies would be uniquely suited to heavy trucking, what with its repetitive routes, relative lack of unpredictability as compared to a public highway, and need for precision on a large scale.
That being said, I still don’t think we’ll all be Ubering everywhere by 2025.
Note: this post has been updated with a more accurate photo. The trucks above, manufactured by Komatsu, have actually been fitted with autonomous systems.