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Suncor Energy Inc. is working to replace its fleet in the oil sands with autonomous trucks ‘by the end of the decade.’Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

Driverless trucks have long seemed a far-fetched notion of the future, technology that would never materialize in this generation.

The future may be closer at hand: Suncor Energy Inc. is working to replace its fleet in the oil sands with autonomous trucks "by the end of the decade." The shift isn't just in energy and mining: In May, Daimler AG started testing its first autonomous 18-wheelers on the desert highways of Nevada. Some believe these types of vehicles will hit public roads within a decade.

Others are skeptical widespread use is around the corner. Still, the swift pace of change could have a significant impact on the labour market, diminishing the need for drivers. It's a big source of employment. Transport truck driver is the second-most common occupation for men in Canada, employing more than 253,000 people. Tens of thousands more work as taxi, bus and delivery-service drivers.

With the accelerating pace of technological development, "we'll achieve as much in the next eight years as we have in the last 40," said Paul Godsmark, chief technology officer at the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence, who is based near Edmonton and sees 2023 as a key year. "Although it sounds fantastical to say this technology will be ready by 2023, the technology exponential development curve suggests that could be an underestimate."

That prediction is based on Google's intention to have driverless cars on the roads by 2020. He believes it will take another three years to solve problems around variable weather. By 2023, the technology will probably be capable of operating year-round within a Canadian city at speeds up to 50 kilometres per hour, he said. The higher-speed capability will come soon after that.

The steps will evolve from semi-autonomous vehicles, where drivers take over for the tricky parts, to having a "concierge" just for supervising and monitoring the autonomous trucks. "So after a while, we'll say, why are we paying someone to do nothing in these trucks? And then that role will disappear."

"We could see the first autonomous trucks probably around 2025, where we accept that there doesn't need to be a driver. And by 2030, I'm guessing it's game over for truck drivers." We may well have truck chaperones – particularly business people who are happy to travel around on their trucks, they can actually work on the way. But considering about 1.5 per cent of Canada's working population drives a big truck, this is big, big news. This is going to be a big issue."

Suncor is nudging its operations toward autonomous heavy-haul trucks. It started testing these types of trucks in 2013. The Calgary-based company confirmed to The Globe and Mail it has a five-year agreement with Japan's Komatsu Ltd., starting this year, to purchase "autonomous-capable" trucks – ones that can be driven by either a person or on its own.

"It's not fantasy," Alister Cowan, Suncor's chief financial officer, said at a global energy conference last month. "Autonomous trucks work in Australia, there's a couple of mines down there, and you've obviously seen the developments from a car perspective."

The company now has 800 heavy-haul drivers who operate the trucks. Its plan is to move to an "autonomous truck strategy, which we should have fully implemented by the end of the decade," he said.

"That will take 800 people off our site," Mr. Cowan said. "At an average [total cost] of a few hundred thousand per person, you can see the savings we're going to get from an operations perspective."

A spokesperson for Suncor added that the technology is still being tested and that any change would be phased in gradually – with the earliest timing at the end of the decade.

Other companies are moving equally fast. Rio Tinto says it has at least 54 autonomous trucks operating in Australia. It says the trucks have led to improved safety and efficiency rates, with lower costs.

"Automated hauling at our mines is something we are exploring," though there are no specific plans for the technology at this time, said Cameron Yost, spokesperson for Shell Canada Ltd. in Calgary.

In Fort McMurray, Steve Kelly has worked for Suncor for more than 10 years as a heavy equipment operator, a job that includes driving heavy-haul trucks. The sector is already taking a hit from lower oil prices; now workers are also worried about the impact automation will have on their jobs.

"The idea that there are job losses out there is concerning for everybody, whether it's because of autonomous trucks being deployed in the next five to 15 years or just the slow rebound in oil," said Mr. Kelly, who is also secretary treasurer for Unifor Local 707A.

"If, in the worst-case scenario, Suncor made all these trucks autonomous, and we're looking at 800 jobs losses, that's not just our people. Others will be impacted as well – it could be the person working at Tim Hortons who's not having as many people going through the drive-through, or the folks working at Safeway, or the teachers' aids. It's just a ripple effect that happens. So oil companies, when they're having these conversations, need to think about the social responsibility that comes with it as well."

He has safety concerns. Conditions are variable. In summer, trucks often get stuck and need to be unstuck, spin their tires or need to move around ruts in the roads. Ice and snow make driving tough in the winter. "It's complicated to operate in the environment that we do."

Another worry is that trucks' systems could get hacked, or be taken over through their radio frequency, resulting in a loss of control.

It's one thing to operate on private, far-flung mining sites, but another to have robot-driven trucks on public roads.

Removing the human driver can cut operating costs by 40 per cent, estimated Mr. Godsmark of the Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence. He noted that driverless trucks can go for 20 hours a day, allowing for maintenance and loading and unloading times, while people-driven trucks are limited by working-time regulations to less than 14 hours per day. Other advantages, he said, are in fewer repairs and the ability to operate at more fuel-efficient speeds. It also alleviates looming driver shortages, he said, though it will also trigger "job displacement" and the need to retrain former drivers for different jobs.

In the U.S., Daimler began testing what it called the world's first autonomous truck licensed to drive on public roads in May. It has two Freightliner trucks that are equipped with a system meant to drive autonomously on highways – and said these vehicles could hit the market as early as 2025.

Slick promotional material of the truck shows a spacious cab full of sensors, instruments and screens. A driver is still present – but he's reclining in his chair, fiddling away on a tablet, eyes off the road.

Speed bumps loom though, among them governments that are slow to pass legislation and a public that may be alarmed by the idea of driving alongside an unmanned 18-wheeler. Robotic vehicles span different levels, with some that need occasional driver assistance, and others that are fully autonomous. One major snag with semi-autonomous vehicles, developers have found, is that drivers don't swiftly take back control when they're supposed to. They are too trusting of the automated driving, or get too distracted, and fail to quickly jump into operating the vehicle. That wrinkle suggests it may yet be a while before these vehicles hit roads.

"It is certainly possible to put the sensors and smarts into trucks to drive autonomously in five years with a monitoring driver still ensuring safety – and the cost savings would be huge if the driver could be removed," said Steven Waslander, assistant professor at the University of Waterloo's department of mechanical and mechatronics engineering. However, he said, because people can't quickly retake control of the vehicle in an emergency, semi-autonomous vehicles with human supervision are unlikely to materialize.

Truck driving is a common job, but also a potentially dangerous one. In 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, 74 death claims were approved by the workplace compensation boards in Canada, the highest tally of any occupation – more than miners, farmers and heavy equipment operators combined.

This shift could affect work-force planning, labour projections and career advice. The Conference Board of Canada has said this country faces a shortage of about 25,000 truck drivers by 2020. It may be tricky to attract people into the profession, with the threat of robot drivers replacing them on the horizon.

It may seem like sci-fi, but Mr. Godsmark said other jurisdictions such as California, the United Kingdom and Singapore are actively preparing the way for driverless vehicles by developing new legislation and promoting the development of the technology.

The prospect of diminished demand for workers raises the question of basic incomes, he added – whether governments should be eventually stepping in to provide a guaranteed income to workers whose jobs have been displaced by technology.

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