On automation and job loss in the tar sands

Alberta tar sands giant Suncor Energy confirmed it is buying autonomous vehicles from a Japanese manufacturer for its tar sands operations. Suncor plans to make its entire fleet autonomous by the end of the decade.

Barrie Kirk of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre:

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.

Low oil prices have been disastrous for Canadian tar sands workers. Automation announcements by companies like Suncor only underscore the need for clean energy jobs.

This shows two important points about energy in Canada in the late-2010s:

  1. Fossil fuel producers are looking to cut costs or offload them to others so they can keep selling their product. Sometimes, there are genuine benefits to these measures, like improving safety and fuel efficiency, and sometimes real social damage, like job losses.
  2. Take claims of job creation from the fossil fuel industry and their political champions very skeptically. The most likely future for oil and gas in Canada is one with fewer jobs than the present, not more.

The trend for tar sands workers is not a promising one. Robotics, teleoperation, and software are fast improving in ways that promote automation in the fossil fuel industry. The industry also faces continuing cost pressures and growing attention on its underpriced carbon pollution.

So let’s turn attention to building a 100% renewable energy system and better supporting Canada’s many non-fossil based exports.