The union representing workers at the Highland Valley Copper mine near Logan Lake sees both positives and negatives from an automated haul truck pilot project underway there.
Self-driving haul trucks have been in use at the copper and molybdenum mine since last fall in an effort to better understand the technology and whether it can a play role supporting the extension of HVC’s projected mine life to 2040 from 2028, according to company spokesperson Peter Martel.
In an emailed statement to KTW, Martel said the pilot project is expected to continue through to the end of 2019.
Though it is early, Martel said autonomous haul trucks have the potential to improve safety and operational efficiency, while reducing maintenance costs.
Martel stressed there will be no layoffs as a result of use of the computer-controlled trucks in an area of the mine that employees more than 160 people and utilizes a total of about 50 trucks.
“Our current projection, regardless of technologies deployed, is that our overall labour force will be around the same as it is today for many years to come if we are successful in extending the mine life,” Martel said.
Kyle Wolff, president of the United Steelworkers local that represents about 1,000 workers at the mine, said the union is embracing the technology, but also has concerns given potential job losses to automation.
“Moving forward, there is going to be a challenge when it comes to allocating manpower,” Wolff said.
“The company has given us the word there will be no layoffs. Now that doesn’t mean there won’t be attrition.”
The benefit of self-driving trucks for the company, Wolff said, is primarily the ability to increase production.
“There’s no shift changes, there’s no breaks — they just run,” Wolff said. “There’s no human to take a washroom break. They only need to stop for fuel and when they break down.”
The pilot project involves modifying two trucks and purchasing four new automated ones, but no drivers had to be re-assigned.
Wolff said the vehicles have actually created a few more jobs.
In order to have continuous hauling, there needs to be continuous loading, which has led to a secondary shovel operator position at the mine, Wolff said.
A rock or other obstacle in the path of a truck will cause it to stop, along with every truck behind it, Wolff said. This has led to a need for more bulldozer and grader operators to ensure the roads are clear.
Wolff said the trucks won’t push up a slippery road if there is a loss of traction, which requires even more road maintenance.
“It’s kind of an ongoing joke at the mine that the roads are better now with no drivers in the seats than they ever have been,” he said.
While there’s a fear of truck-driving jobs being lost to automation in the future, the union’s plan is to have those employees absorbed into other areas, such as maintenance work, for which Wolff believes there will always be a need.
“The trucks will always break down and you can’t automate maintenance,” he said.
In the last contract negotiations, the union asked for, and has seen an increase in, apprenticeships at the mine. As senior members move into these jobs, their former positions could open up for a driver, Wolff said.
However, the union president doesn’t see the haul truck jobs going the way of the dinosaur, as he believes there will always be a need for a person in that role, just not in the same capacity.
“You can’t program a truck to do everything a human can do,” Wolff said.
Automated technology has taken jobs away at the mine in the past.
“We’ve seen the amount of crush operators go from three to two, we’ve seen our operators in the mill go from five to three,” Wolff.
Though automation has already replaced jobs, Wolff said there has been about 1,000 positions at the mine for the last 10 years and he doesn’t expect it to dip below that number in the immediate future.
In January, the Globe and Mail reported that About 400 jobs are expected to disappear at Suncor Energy Inc.’s oilsands mines in northern Alberta as it adds 150 driverless trucks in the next six years.
Suncor is the first oilsands mining operation to adopt the technology.