Day 6

Will Suncor's driverless trucks put Alberta truck drivers out of work?

Last week, Suncor signed an agreement to buy 175 driverless trucks for its Alberta operations - with plans to replace its entire fleet of heavy haulers by the end of the decade. Local union members fear major job losses. But industry expert Barrie Kirk says the trucks are here to stay.
The robot trucks are coming. As prices fall, oilsand operators are seeking ways to produce the same output at lower costs, and experience from other resource communities in decline show that even a recovery can mean fewer jobs. (Reuters)

Driverless trucks are coming to Alberta's mining operations. Last week, Suncor Energy Inc. confirmed that it has entered a 5-year agreement with a Japanese manufacturer of autonomous vehicles. The company has already agreed to buy 175 driverless trucks, and a spokesperson says it plans to replace its entire fleet by the end of the decade. Local union members are concerned that the technology could lead to the loss of hundreds of jobs.

Day 6 got the reaction of two stakeholders from opposite ends of the automated vehicle debate: Barrie Kirk is is the executive director of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence consulting firm. And Steve Kelly is the Treasurer for Unifor Local 707A in Fort McMurray. He has been operating heavy equipment with Suncor for ten years.

Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.


Describe to me what we're talking about here. How big are the heavy haul trucks?

The trucks in the oil patch are huge. These are the big monster trucks that carry ore and dirt from where it's been scraped from the ground to a processing site. So they are 20-30 meters tall, with wheels a couple of times taller than the average person.

How difficult is it to control a piece of technology so gigantic and so specialized?

On the private property of the oil patch, not all that difficult. There's already a lot of computing power on those trucks, so you just have to give the onboard computers the right commands. The controls are electronic — "drive by wire," as it's called. It would be far, far more complicated to have an automated car driving in downtown Toronto.

And what about the people who drive the trucks now? If it's "drive by wire," why do they make so much money?

Because there's a huge responsibility. There is some training required, and I think a lot of people in the oil patch make a lot of money. The hours are long, and they earn their money from those realities.

So you're saying it's not that specialized work then?

I don't want to oversimplify it, but a good driver can be trained to drive those trucks easily.

Suncor is about to purchase 175 driverless trucks and is looking to make the entire fleet autonomous by the end of the decade. Are they ahead of their time in implementing this technology?

No, they're right in the mainstream. Autonomous trucks have been in use in Australian mining operations for a year or two now. Really, what the industry is doing here is picking the low-hanging fruit. It's a lot easier to design and operate an autonomous truck on private property like the oil sands than it is on a on a public road. And there are a number of motivations. Computers drive better and more safely and better than humans. Unfortunately, there will be jobs lost. But the work that Suncor has been doing with a prototype for the last couple years has proven to them that they can save money on fuel. They will save money on maintenance costs because there's less wear and tear. Also, the huge mammoth tires will last longer. At fifty thousand dollars a pop, that's very important.

Will they lose money if they don't keep up with what's happening in this industry?

They will lose money, and obviously some of the competitive edge. If they don't do it, others will.

Tell me about the people who drive these trucks now. How much money are they making?

It varies. Way north of $100,000 a year. That's a lot of money. And unfortunately, with this technology, there will be a lot of job losses; not just in the trucking industry, but also in other areas, like transit.

You say that computers are safer. But we all know that computers can malfunction. How can you assure us that it will be safer in the long run?

Because they will not be sold for public use until they are safe and proven to be safe. But I also want to make one very important comment here. Computers will be safer drivers, there's no doubt about that. But you're right. All hardware and software fails occasionally. There will be collisions. There will be injuries. And, very tragically, there will be fatalities. But Google has said that when their vehicles are commercially available, they will be safer than human drivers. All the thought leaders in this area agree with that.

What advice would you give to someone who's currently training to become a heavy haul driver?

This is a specialized area, so it's a good area to get into in the short term. But in the long term, plan on getting a different line of work.

But it sounds like the long term is very short right now. We're talking about a full implementation of the vehicles by the end of the decade.

Yes. By 2020, we'll start to see fully autonomous vehicles in the showrooms. Initially the deployment will be gradual, but the real tipping point will be about 2025.

In your opinion, how prepared are Canadians to embrace driverless technology?

People will adapt, I've got no doubt about that. One thing that concerns me is this interim period where we do have computers and people sharing the same highways. That'll be more dangerous. So from one perspective, the sooner we can move to a computer-only environment, the safer it will be for all of us.

What about the job costs? Do you think that people will also be able to rationalize the number of people who are put out of work by the vehicles?

We at CAVCOE teamed up with the Conference Board of Canada and the Van Horne Institute, and we showed that the Canadian economy would benefit by $65 billion dollars a year through the full deployment of automated vehicles. There will be a lot of job losses. But my hope is that governments at all levels will take job retraining seriously, and will help ease the transition for those people who are negatively affected.


Steve, you operate one of these heavy hauler trucks yourself. How worried are you about your job security?

It's concerning. The idea of having driverless haul trucks is very scary. When you consider the potential job loss, which could be up to 800 jobs on our work site, it's nerve wracking. There's a lot of things that we are taking in consideration; it's not just the job losses but the safety factor as well.

Barry Kirk just told us that heavy haulers are relatively simple to operate. Do you agree with that?

No. I wouldn't agree with that at all. I've been operating equipment at Suncor for 10 years now, and there's nothing easy about our job. There are ever-changing conditions that we have to constantly try to maneuver around — whether it's rain, snow, icy roads, or just the roads themselves. In the type of mining that we do, the conditions are always changing. And as Barry said, machinery does fail. Humans are apt to react quickly to those changing conditions, on a second-by-second or millisecond-by-millisecond basis.

If Suncor follows through on its plans to replace the whole fleet by 2020, how many people will lose their jobs by your reckoning?

Suncor has been very clear with us that they're in the testing phases right now, that implementation of an entire truck fleet wouldn't be possible by 2020. That said, job loss is job loss. It's not just myself or the people sitting beside me. There is the future that we have to take in consideration as well. Whether it's one haul truck operator or 800 haul truck operators, we all feel the pain, and there's a ripple effect that comes with that. We will be fighting against replacing a blood-and-guts operator that supports his community versus a computer.

But Mr. Kirk said driverless trucks are safer, because they eliminate human error. What's wrong with that argument?

Barry said it best. We know that computers fail, and I don't want to work in an environment where we expect things bad to happen. We want to make sure we're planning for a journey to zero where nobody gets hurt. Whether we are working around another haul truck or running other pieces of equipment, we have the capacity to feel the pain when somebody gets hurt. We're always looking out for those people around us.

Mr. Kirk said that trucks right now are largely "drive by wire," meaning elements are already computer controlled. Are driverless trucks just the logical next step?

I'm not sure where that information comes from. Just like vehicles on the road, there are a lot of computers that help to monitor things like oil pressure and temperature. But when we get into that truck, we are not just turning the steering wheel and pressing on a throttle. We're watching the dirt that's on the road. We're watching the people around us. The conditions are constantly changing.

The autonomous haul trucks in use around the world right now are primarily in Australia, working in hard rock mines. We're working in a soft rock environment, and trucks get stuck more easily. They have to maneuver around certain types of material that are harder to gauge. There are a lot of things that you have to take into consideration with this type of mining environment. Suncor has tested a haul truck here in Alberta, but it's been tested for very short periods, and not in a blended working environment. They're just taking in data right now to see if it's even functional.

But the oil business is a global business, and Canada's oil patch has to be competitive. Does it strike you as inevitable that Suncor and other companies in the oil patch are going to move towards this option?

I think it's inevitable that they'll want to test it. Whether they'll move to it or not is to be seen. That's going to be the question for the future.

But don't they need to move toward it if it becomes the global standard?

I don't know that it will be the global standard. Again, our working conditions are very different from other mines around the world. I believe there are other methods for cost reduction, as we've already seen with the downturn in oil. When it comes to job loss, if 100 people lose positions or aren't unable to get positions because of automated haul trucks, that's three teachers' aides that aren't going to be at the schools. That's six people that aren't going to be working at Safeway. There are a lot of other implications. There are a lot of other people that feel that pressure and that pain.

It's a much broader argument than just it makes more financial sense to have an automated haul truck that will save one $100,000 job a year. It takes four people for our worksite to operate one of these machines. So if we bring in one haul truck, that's potentially four people that don't have that job.

Mr. Kirk says people who are training to become heavy hauler operators should probably think about pursuing another line of work. What would you tell people who say that they want to do what you do for a living?

I tell people that what I do for a living is an amazing experience. And as a union member, and an advocate for my workforce, I'll continue to fight for people that are in this position and do this work.

But do you think in the future people will still want to do what you're doing now?

I believe so, yes.