Autonomous Trucks Coming to Alberta Tar Sands

Rio Tinto - Autonomous Haulage Trucks, West Angelas minesite; credit Christian Sprogoe Photography

Alberta loves tar sands for the same reason West Virginia loves coal — there’s a lot of money to be made by getting it out of the ground and turning it into fuel. Like coal, the Alberta tar sands have been billed as the dirtiest form of fossil fuel ever discovered.

At a time when world leaders are considering how to transition their nations away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy, the province of Alberta is hell bent on converting all those tar sands into cash. Never mind that doing so will put billions of tons more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and endanger the health of every person on earth.

It used to be said that fossil fuel extraction was essential to local economies because it gave employment to lots of people, but no more. According to 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 earth moving 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.”

There are presently 1,000 drivers who operate those monster trucks. The problem for Suncor is, each of those drivers makes about $200,000 a year. If they can replace them with autonomous vehicles that drive themselves, the company can pocket the money and pay it to their CEO in the form of a bonus for his “brilliant” idea.

The company’s chief financial officer, Alister Cowan, told investors at an RBC Capital Markets conference in New York last week, “That will take 800 people off our site. At an average (salary) of $200,000 per person, you can see the savings we’re going to get from an operations perspective.” You can almost imagine Cowan rubbing his hands in glee at the prospect of throwing 800 people out of work and pocketing the savings. He predicts autonomous trucks will be in operation by “the end of the decade.”

Marshall McLuhan once said, “We shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.” Nobody paid any attention to him then. Today, people are falling all over themselves in anticipation of the new golden age when all vehicles drive themselves, but almost no one thinks about what that means for people who make their living by driving our cars, trucks, and trains. Brave new world, indeed.

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.