Self-Driving Tech Rebuilds the Construction Industry

Autonomous vehicles promise safer work environments, increased productivity and even better jobs.

Construction sites are notoriously dangerous—and often understaffed. A pervasive labor shortage in construction means that companies often struggle to hire new talent, and so are now turning to a new type of worker to help fill the gap: autonomous vehicles.

These vehicles, which can improve safety and work around the clock, are already operating on job sites worldwide. Compare to self-driving cars, autonomous construction vehicles have a shorter road to implementation because they interact less frequently with other vehicles and move more slowly.

The construction industry—one of the world’s least-digitized industries that has seen negligible productivity increases since 1945—is poised to reap significant safety, efficiency and profitability gains by recruiting next-generation robotics and software.

Growing Adoption in the Industry

Many existing construction equipment makers—including Caterpillar, John Deere, Volvo and Japan’s Komatsu—are investing in the software and hardware that power autonomous construction vehicles (or AHS: autonomous haulage systems). Startups are in on the market, too: Built Robotics, started by former Google engineer Noah Ready-Campbell, recently raised $15 million to hire engineers and get its product to market.

One of the largest deployments of AHS trucks is at RioTinto’s ore mining site in Pilbara, Australia. The company, which now uses 69 autonomous trucks at the site, reported that trucks have reduced load haul and operating costs by 13%—and that they outperform a non-autonomous fleet by 14% overall. What’s more, there are major safety benefits.

“Autonomous trucks reduce employee exposure to hazards and risks associated with operating heavy equipment, such as fatigue-related incidents, sprains and other soft tissue injuries and exposure to noise and dust,” one mining operations manager said in an interview.

And while human drivers require regular breaks, the AHS trucks can run almost 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, stopping only for refueling and maintenance. Humans pre-program the trucks with software-based commands, and off they go.

Digging into the World of Autonomous Earth Movers >

R “Ray” Wang, Principal Analyst and Founder of Constellation Research, predicts that, by 2021, some 15% of the $221.3 billion construction vehicle global market will be comprised of autonomous vehicles. The vehicles cost $300,000, on average, he says.

And autonomous vehicles can optimize routes, tire wear and fuel consumption up to 51% better than traditional construction vehicles. “So far, they've done well in controlled environments,” says Wang.

Will the Bots Replace the Foreman? Not so Fast!

Experts like Wang say fears about autonomous vehicles replacing human workers have largely been blown out of proportion. Rather than eliminating jobs, these vehicles may require human operators to do more technical, high-skill tasks.

“The greatest issue with autonomy is the skills gap,” says Grayson Brulte, cofounder of Brulte & Company, an innovation consultancy. “If the employer puts the right training in place, they can transition workers to a new job [working with autonomous vehicles].”

Experienced operators may be required 24/7 if something goes awry, creating higher-skilled work opportunities and potentially raising salaries. RioTinto is already investing in training for existing employees:

“We are generating opportunities for our current and future workforce to gain skills and competencies for smart mining,” Chris Salisbury, Chief Executive of RioTinto Iron Ore, said in a company statement. “These courses will likely be in areas including robotics, data analytics and digital inclusion education.”

Today, 60% of contractors report difficulty finding skilled workers, according to the Commercial Construction Index. That shortage has hampered, among other critical tasks, recovery efforts from hurricanes Irma and Harvey. One option looming for construction firms with shortages of human workers is automation—and Brulte foresees this technology spreading quickly.

“Everything is becoming autonomous,” he says. “When you look at mining, it will save a lot of lives. For farming, if you run a family farm and have an autonomous John Deere [tractor], that creates economic freedom. In construction, it’s going to create a great boom.”

Todd Wasserman
By Todd Wasserman | February 14, 2018

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