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Chinese AHS firms hope to strike rich vein in Australia
Autonomous mining trucks have been in Australia for over a decade, but room for expansion remains huge
Yuki Li 9 May 2024

Chinese manufacturers of autonomous mining trucks have set their sights on the Australian market, where they see a huge potential for expansion.

Australia’s mining industry is highly developed, operating the world’s largest fleet of autonomous trucks, numbering over 700 units. Still, the market holds great potential, considering that there are over 350 mines operating across the country.

The demand for autonomous mining trucks in Australia is largely due to the shortage and high cost of employing truck drivers.

“The comprehensive employment cost of a mining truck driver is around A$200,000 (US$132,446). The application of autonomous trucks can help reduce a significant amount of human resources cost, since only three operators can manage dozens of trucks,” says Elaine Jin, the chief operating officer of EACON Australia, a unit of Beijing-headquartered autonomous driving technology provider EACON Mining.

Mining equipment is largely imported from the United States, Japan, China, and Germany. Major players such as Caterpillar, Komatsu, Wirtgen, Joy Global, and Liebherr have a strong presence in Australia.

Smaller-scale local manufacturers cater to niche and specialized markets and are particularly competitive in mining-related software, fine coal cleaning and process control, and strata reinforcement technology, according to the International Trade Administration of the US Department of Commerce.

Low penetration rate

“Although autonomous mining trucks have been in Australia for over 10 years, the penetration rate is still quite low, and the main working scenarios focus on bulk mining like iron ore and one coal mining,” Jin explains.

Chinese manufacturers are eager to expand their business in Australia, recognizing the significant market potential. Nevertheless, there are notable differences between the two countries such as in truck sizes. The widely used trucks in Australia are around 200-300 tonnes for large iron ore operations, while Chinese mines mostly utilize 80-tonne mining trucks.

Autonomous mining trucks face challenges in selective mining, defined as selecting the high-value ore while leaving the low-grade ore in the mine, such as gold mining. Newmont Corporation’s Boddington Mine is the first and only gold mine in Australia using an Autonomous Haulage System (AHS) solution, with the equipment and technology provided by US manufacturer Caterpillar.

Given such a situation, a differentiated strategy is key for Chinese AHS providers to gain market share in Australia. EACON Mining aims to retrofit existing mining trucks with AHS solutions within the country. Additionally, the company leverages advancements in electric vehicle development in China to export factory fitted autonomous battery dump trucks and autonomous hybrid dump trucks to Australia.

“In selective mining scenarios like gold mining, trucks need to load and haul in tight and dynamic spaces, so relatively small trucks around 90 tonnes are commonly used. This is also the market that Chinese providers are targeting, as Chinese electric mining trucks can be developed at 90 tonnes,” Jin says.

Good starting point

China’s EV industry is quite mature with a full supply chain in the country. China began producing electric mining trucks in 2018, and Yutong, as an original equipment manufacturer, is one of the leaders in this space. Its EY60 all-electric autonomous wide-body mining trucks, co-developed by Yutong Mining Equipment and EACON Mining, were put into use at a limestone mining project in Shandong by Honghe Baili Mining, forming an autonomous fleet of 20 units, which has been operating for over one year.

In early 2024, the first batch of Yutong’s pure electric autonomous mining trucks was officially shipped to Thailand and delivered to the country’s largest cement enterprise, marking the Chinese company’s entry into the overseas electric mining truck market.

In January 2024, Caterpillar successfully demonstrated a prototype of an all-new battery electric underground mining truck at its Australian testing site, marking the latest addition to a rapidly growing portfolio of battery electric and semi-autonomous mining machines.

Several developments, such as the decarbonization trend and the EU carbon tax, set to come into force in 2026, are boosting the demand for electric trucks. The main concern is the high cost of building battery swap infrastructure, which is the most efficient way to make these trucks operational. This being the case, building lower-cost charging stations could be a good alternative, especially if the charging speed is improved.

“Australia, with many global mining companies, is a good starting point for Chinese companies going overseas. The operation and mining standards in Australia could also be utilized in other countries,” Jin observes.

This year EACON Australia aims complete a pilot project to verify the feasibility of deploying the EACON AHS solution in the market, with a target for commercialization in 2025.

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