The Elusive Dream of Fully Autonomous Construction Vehicles

When will those trials lead to autonomous construction machinery doing real work on construction sites? “We’ll get there,” Weiss says, but Caterpillar’s partners need to be comfortable with the technology’s maturity. “There are risks involved, and we’re on that journey, learning with them as we go, so that when we are commercially ready, they’re ready and comfortable with the product.”

Weiss says that Caterpillar started work on automating mining operations and construction sites around the same time, more than a decade ago, but automation happened quicker in mines for a few reasons.

First, mines have semi-permanent roads, and being underground lets you safely secure the area. And since mines are generally in remote places where it’s tough to house and feed people, automation can be more attractive. By contrast, construction sites are often short-lived and in a state of constant change, without permanent roads.

Caterpillar, along with startup Teleo, argues that the road to fully autonomous construction sites must first go through a phase where semi-automated equipment is operated remotely, by workers elsewhere. In this development stage, people with the necessary training can work with semi-autonomous machines anywhere in the world using an interface that resembles a video game, potentially even working from home. In parallel, AI experts will identify repetitive tasks suitable for automation.

Heavy machine operators today can choose to use some limited automation features, such as automatic grading to make surfaces flat when using a dozer. But the goal, Caterpillar chief engineer Michael Murphy says, is to allow one person to simultaneously operate four or five machines at a time by having algorithms take on much of the work.

Caterpillar equipment in automation experiments today resembles conventional machinery. However, Volvo and Bobcat parent company Doosan, which pledged to commercialize its autonomous Concept-X project by 2025, are already designing machines without cabins where a human operator sits.

Volvo Autonomous Solutions head of communications Ceren Wende says the company has a single cabin-less hauler at work in a limestone quarry in Switzerland and seven autonomous trucks in a mine in Norway but no autonomous heavy equipment operating on construction sites.

An excavator without a cabin for a human operator looks striking, says Anthony Levandowski, CEO of startup, but he predicts such machines are still “very, very far away” from widespread use.

Levandowski was once a founding member of the pep squad predicting that self-driving cars would soon take over. Before pleading guilty to taking confidential information from Google’s Waymo autonomous driving division (and receiving a pardon from former president Trump), he helped catalyze the automated driving industry when, in 2008, he programmed a self-driving Prius to cross the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (with a police escort) to deliver a pizza.

“I was like, ‘I think we’re about two years away from having this commercializable,’” Levandowski says. “That was 15 years ago.” Today, he judges self-driving cars to have fallen behind. Pronto, like Caterpillar, focuses on automating trucks that travel on predetermined routes in mines and quarries. 

Though the trucks can weigh more than 100 tons, it’s significantly easier than autonomous driving on public roads, because the vehicles operate on simpler, privately-owned road networks. Employees are trained on how to behave and what to expect around the autonomous machines.

Levandowski says Pronto isn’t working on automating construction. He expects progress will be modest in the next few years, taking on simpler tasks such as automatic grading using a dozer and water trucks for dust suppression.

Built CEO Noah Ready-Campbell says his company’s research and development efforts are now focused on the robotic pile driver despite the company’s history with automating dozers, skid steers, and excavators. Although the company showed it was possible to dig trenches with automated excavators, it ran into roadblocks when trying to  convince customers to embrace automation. “You have to solve a big enough pain point to spur adoption,” Ready-Campbell says. “People will only change behavior if it’s worth it.”

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