The first big commercial deployment of driverless car technology is coming not in the streets of Silicon Valley but in the arid and sparsely populated Pilbara region of Australia. That’s where the large mining conglomerate Rio Tinto has rolled out fleets of all-driverless trucks at two iron ore mines, according to a report by Jamie Smyth at the Financial Times.
Rio Tinto tells Smyth that the driverless transition has improved performance by 12 percent, mainly by “eliminating required breaks, absenteeism and shift changes.”
GPS guides the trucks and allows them to deliver iron ore 24/7, 365 days a year, without the kinds of breaks and handover periods that human drivers would need. The GPS navigation system is backstopped by a team of human operators working remotely from Perth, hundreds of miles away.
Not only does this reduce the total number of humans who are needed to run the trucking operation, but it eliminates the need to employ those humans in the remote and desolate mining country.A mine needs to be located where the ore is, and you often end up needing to pay a premium to recruit workers to ore-adjacent locations. Remote workers, by contrast, can live in a nice suburb of a midsize city.
Why driverless is coming to mines first
But of course mining operations are hardly the only companies that could save money by replacing human drivers with robots. The big difference is that the mine setting offers a huge advantage that most companies can’t match — there are no human drivers on the road.
As David Roberts has written, one of the biggest technical challenges in making a general-purpose autonomous vehicle is that it would have to deal with all those crazy human beings. If all the cars were autonomous and networked, they would interact and communicate in predictable ways.
But for that to happen in a normal transportation context, you would first need a transition phase in which autonomous cars co-exist with human-piloted ones long enough for them to gain trust and traction.
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