Huge trucks in Alberta’s oil-sand country are undergoing testing for the day when they’ll shed their human drivers. According to the Calgary Herald, the mine operator, Suncor Energy, has contracted to buy 175 such “autonomous ready” trucks from Japan’s Komatsu.

The trucks are equipped with the familiar suite of guidance technologies, including high-precision GPS, which should work pretty much all the time in the flat terrain of a mining encampment. They also communicate with other autonomous or semiautonomous support vehicles to form an integrated system, an industry trend that’s giving mines the kind of automation that factories have.

Mining hits the three d’s of roboeconomics: it’s dull, dirty and dangerous. It adds a fourth one, all its own--the trucks are distant from pedestrians and cars. That way, there’s little chance of crushing innocents underfoot, Truckasaurus-style. 

Economics do matter. The Herald quotes Suncor’s chief financial officer Alister Cowan as saying that the move will eventually replace some 800 people, saving an average of CAN $200,000 per person. Another reason for the move is the operating flexibility of autonomous machines, which can keep on trucking, night and day, without a bathroom break or a cup of coffee.

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