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Self-driving fleets are steering big rig operators toward obsolescence

There are more than 600,000 men employed to drive motorized vehicles in Canada, according to Statistics Canada.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Bud the Spud may well be Canada's best known truck driver.

Mythologized in song by country singer Stompin' Tom Connors in 1969, Bud the Spud hauled potatoes from Prince Edward Island.

Through Montreal he comes just a flyin' with another big load a potatoes

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Stompin' Tom sang about the working man – Sudbury miners, Nova Scotia sailors and, of course, truckers.

Truck drivers were a given. After all, truck driving is the Canadian man's favourite occupation.

There are more than 600,000 men employed to drive motorized vehicles in Canada, according to Statistics Canada. That includes 260,000 truck drivers, 90,000 delivery and courier drivers and 97,000 heavy equipment operators.

But is Bud the Spud a relic of the past? Are truck drivers destined to join the Teamsters, typists and typesetters on the list of obsolete occupations?

In early 2014, Rio Tinto plans to have 40 robot trucks operating at three Australian mining locations – controlled from Perth, 1,500 kilometres from the sites. It is the world's first major deployment of an autonomous truck fleet. Since trials began in December, 2008, the autonomous trucks have operated every day, 24 hours a day, and have moved more than 100 million tonnes of material and travelled more than one million kilometres.

Suncor Energy Inc., Canada's largest energy company, is testing similar technology at its Steepbank, Alta., open-pit mine.

In Europe, technology is being developed to allow automated "road trains" on public highways. In 2012, Volvo Trucks tried out its robot trucks on public roads, as part of the European Commission-backed Project SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment). The road train consisted of a single, lead driver in a truck, controlling the speed, steering and braking two or more trucks or cars. Vehicles in the road train travel at speeds of up to 90 km/h with a four-metre gap between vehicles.

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In the United States, the National Defence Authorization Act of 2001 required advances in "unmanned, remotely controlled technology such that, by 2015, one-third of the operational ground combat vehicles are unmanned."

Oshkosh Truck Corp. has developed a driverless option for some of the military trucks it builds, including those that haul troops and pull howitzers, and larger ones that can carry bridge parts.

What's not to like about robot trucks? Energy savings of up to 20 per cent; safer roads due to reduced driver error; less congested roads as robot trucks can travel closer together; increased productivity because robot trucks can operate around the clock; and lower costs due to fewer drivers.

"Will technology replace drivers?" says Marco Beghetto, vice-president of communications and new media for the Ontario Trucking Association. "Probably not in my lifetime."

But technology may make truck driving a whole lot easier and attract a new generation to the industry. "It is a hard job," says Beghetto. "And not a lot of high school counsellors are urging kids to become truck drivers."

The trucking industry is struggling to fill its long-haul positions. The Conference Board of Canada forecasts a shortage of 28,000 to 33,000 drivers between now and 2020.

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"If the new technologies can relieve the burdens of long-haul driving and get guys home more we might be able to attract a whole new type of person to the industry," says Beghetto.

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