Much has been made of Google’s self-driving cars. Fitted with AI software and an array of sensors, the computer-controlled fleet recently surpassed 300,000 road miles without an accident. The company says robot drivers react faster than humans and don’t get sleepy, distracted, or intoxicated, and would boost road capacity by letting cars drive more safely and be spaced closer together. But right now, the experimental vehicles require a human in the driver’s seat. Most experts say practical autonomous cars are years away from affordability and mass production.

With less fanfare, several mining operations have been running autonomous haul trucks with considerable success. Caterpillar is operating a few small fleets in the U.S. and abroad, and will soon have 45 unmanned haulers at an iron-ore mine in Australia. Komatsu has likewise deployed such vehicles in Chile and Australia. It expects to have 150 driverless trucks at a Rio Tinto mine in Western Australia within the next four years, run from an operations center in Perth, nearly 1,000 miles away.

These “ultraclass” dump trucks — the size of a small house and carrying payloads up to 400 tons — rely on sophisticated controllers, GPS, obstacle-detection systems, and a wireless-communications network. Software algorithms tell the machines where to go and what to do, while seamlessly and safely working with and around other equipment and personnel.

It’s mining of the future, today. Driven by a booming demand for minerals, autonomy is seen as a way to get more ore out of the ground quickly and efficiently. Trucks can be programmed to back under a shovel to within a few inches of the same spot, all day long, to speed loading. Cycle times are always the same, with no time lost from operator fatigue, rest breaks, and shift changes. And consistently operating trucks within design specs can maximize fuel economy, lessen mechanical breakdowns, and improve tire life.

While up-front costs are higher, these benefits offer potential savings in the millions, say OEMs and mine operators alike. Autonomy also addresses a growing shortage of skilled workers as mine sites move into more remote areas. It may attract a new generation of employees who have grown up with powerful computers, video games, and the Internet and would otherwise never consider a career in mining.

Users are learning lessons as they gain experience. One is that humans intuitively sense surroundings in ways that today’s smart machines cannot. For instance, a driver who hears an unusual noise or sees a broken component can stop the truck or call maintenance. Computers can’t monitor in the same way. Condition-monitoring systems help, but safety checks are needed at regular intervals.

Another aspect is dealing with mine regulations that weren’t written with unmanned vehicles in mind. For instance, MSHA codes say cab windows must be kept clean, and mobile equipment cannot be left unattended unless the brakes are set. Obviously, they make little sense with unmanned vehicles. Cat has had to work with local agency officials to overcome these hurdles.

Granted, mining trucks aren’t dealing with the same level of complexity as Google’s cars, but they’re actually getting work done and growing ever-more sophisticated. The ultimate goal: completely autonomous mines with not only unmanned haulers, but drill rigs, shovels, and loaders, too. Some say that could happen within the next 5 to 20 years.

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.