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Mining looks to electric, autonomous vehicles to reduce costs and improve efficiency

Key Points
  • The technology that underpins the way businesses operate is changing.
  • The use of electric equipment within the mining sector represents an interesting development.
Bim | E+ | Getty Images

As innovation progresses, the technology that underpins the way businesses operate is changing, with concerns about the environment and efficiencies helping to inform decisions.

In the mining sector, for example, Chinese firm SANY recently announced it had deployed two autonomous, electric mining trucks.

According to the company, the SKT90E wide-body mining trucks had been able to demonstrate "high-level environmental identification and positioning capacity." SANY added that the truck was able to "independently complete route-tracking, load and unload of materials, and parking."

The use of electric equipment within the mining sector represents an interesting development that could have a significant impact going forward. 

At the beginning of July, a report from Wood Mackenzie's global head of multi-commodity research, James Whiteside, said that original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs, were developing a bigger range of electric mining equipment.

The report added that "falling upfront costs" were "building competition with diesel alternatives" and went on to note that getting rid of exhaust gases was beneficial to underground workers' health and also required less ventilation.

"Electrification allows safer operations, automation and regenerative braking to boost efficiency," the report said. However it cautioned that such efficiencies would "not offset the increase in energy intensity of deeper, more remote and lower grade mines."

"More electricity is required, and it needs to be renewable," the report went on to state.

Earlier this year a report from Accenture, "Mined Over Matter", emphasized just how important autonomous technology could be to mining in the years ahead.

"With constantly advancing technology — and especially the increase in the intelligence of systems — autonomous operations have the potential to significantly increase efficiency and productivity," its authors said.

The use of autonomous tech in mining is becoming more widespread. Rio Tinto says it now runs over 130 autonomous trucks and its iron ore business uses a "fully autonomous, heavy-haul long-distance railway system" that has undertaken over 7 million kilometers of trips.

Another major player in the industry, BHP, has been using a fully-autonomous fleet of trucks at a facility in Western Australia since 2017 and has introduced the technology to a number of other sites as well.

While autonomous vehicles may be becoming more common in parts of the mining sector, their widespread use on public roads is perhaps less certain.

Last November, the CEO of self-driving start-up explained that autonomous driving in a "simple environment" was fairly easy in implement, but it became hard to keep safe when other factors were in play.

"The reason autonomous driving is so hard is because all of us, right, we are sharing the same road with AI (artificial intelligence) and we are irrational at a lot of times," James Peng, who was speaking on a panel discussion at CNBC's East Tech West conference in China, said.

"So, this is the task: where autonomous driving in a simple environment is fairly easy, it can be easily done, but if you're adding the irrationality of all the other vehicles, pedestrians, then it becomes very hard to keep it safe,"