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Robot trucks now operating at Rio Tinto

SYDNEY, Oct. 19 (Xinhua) -- Global mining giant Rio Tinto has started using automated, driverless trucks to move iron ore in its Pilbara mines, controlled from an operations center 1,200 kilometers away in Perth.

The world's first commercial implementation of the technology removes high risk, repetitive roles which expose employees to fatigue while also reducing significant operating costs and maintaining consistency, said Rio Tinto Yandicoogina operations manager Josh Bennett.

"One of the biggest costs we have got it maintaining mobile assets, so we spend a lot of time on our operator training, education," Bennett told the national broadcaster ABC.

Rio Tinto now has 69 driverless trucks operating 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, estimating a saving of 500 work hours per truck per year.

"So, there is obvious capital savings, in terms of setting up camps, flying people to site, there is less people so there is less operating costs, but there are some costs that come into running the system and maintenance of the system as well," Bennett said.

The resources giant is also trialling unmanned trains and robot drills, aiming for a roll out of the machines to as many mine sites as possible in the next year.

Global resource rivals BHP Billiton and local middleweight Fortescue Metals are also in on the act, trialling similar technology at their mines.

Local market analysts have said the shift to autonomous vehicles was to be expected if Australian miners wanted to remain competitive through the cycle following "unrealistic" wage increases and increased scrutiny of safety concerns.

Though the resource sector is developing driverless technology in a commercial closed circuit enterprise, it is in fact the automotive industry that is leading the technological advances.

Global automotive manufacturers have recently created a new battleground in the technology market against the likes of Google and Apple, snapping up software experts in the race to develop a self-driving car for the consumer market.

"Obviously it's not public because there is a lot of money... and it's a very competitive industry with different automotive manufacturers, therefore they keep it behind closed doors," University of New South Wales associate professor of industrial automation and engineering, Jay Katupitiya, told Xinhua on Monday.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, on the sidelines of the Frankfurt Auto Show in September, said he expected driverless cars to be widespread operation throughout the world within 10 years.

High-end electric automotive manufacturer Tesla has taken the realization of that expectation a step further by releasing a software upgrade for the Model S four-door saloon's autopilot system, to be released in European and Asian markets this week.

The upgrade allows its cars to automatically change lanes by the touch of the indicator, managing speed and even hit the breaks.

"We're being especially cautious at this early stage so we are advising drivers to keep their hands on the wheel just in case," Tesla founder and chief executive Elon Musk told reporters last week at the U.S. software release.

"In the long term, people will not need hands on the wheel, and eventually there won't be (steering) wheels or pedals."

In 2014, Tesla began equipping its Model S cars - which number 80,000 globally to date - with radar, cameras, ultrasonic sensors and other hardware to begin incrementally introducing driverless capabilities.

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