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Australian Mines Operating All-Driverless Truck Fleets

October 23, 2015

Australian mining conglomerate Rio Tinto has rolled out fleets of all-driverless trucks at two iron ore mines in the country’s Pilbara region, according to a report by vox.com.

Rio Tinto said it has improved performance by 12 percent, mainly by "eliminating required breaks, absenteeism and shift changes," according to the report.

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, according to the report.

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.

Rio Tinto doesn't have that problem. It controls the entire site, and can make the transition to an all-autonomous fleet all at once. There's no "transition period.” There's just a transition, according to the report.

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