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Suncor Seeks Cost Cutting With Robot Trucks in Oil-Sands Mine

As part of cost cuts at Suncor Energy Inc., Chief Executive Officer Steve Williams has scrapped items such as a C$11.6 billion ($11 billion) oil-sands plant. Now, he’s looking at savings from mining with robot trucks.

Suncor, Canada’s largest energy company by market value, is the first oil-sands operator to test haul trucks run by computers, said Gary Bunio, Suncor’s general manager of technology development. The move follows steps by miners including Rio Tinto Plc to replace human-operated trucks with driverless vehicles to lower the cost to produce ore.

Using autonomous haul trucks can increase productivity and reduce fuel and maintenance costs by 15 percent, John Meech, a mining engineering professor at the University of British Columbia who has researched the truck systems, said yesterday in a phone interview.

Haul trucks used in mining are each the size of a three-story building and cost C$4 million, with tires that are C$50,000 to replace, Meech said. The autonomous trucks don’t have drivers, who sometimes make C$150,000 a year in the oil sands area, he said.

One truck that operates with global positioning system technology is hauling bitumen and driving the roads of Suncor’s Steepbank open-pit mine in a trial. Suncor may replace some or all of its haul trucks with autonomous vehicles over five years, provided additional tests are successful, Bunio said in an Oct. 28 phone interview.

Williams, Suncor’s CEO since May 2012, has focused on cutting costs including halting the C$11.6 billion Voyageur upgrader with Total SA. Two months into his term, he said Suncor may delay a plan to expand the company’s production to 1 million barrels a day by 2020.

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