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China self-driving mining truck firms roll ahead
Business, part of green, smart mining transformation, fundraises, expands regionally
Yuki Li 25 Apr 2024

China has seen a rising demand for autonomous mining trucks due to the accelerating digitalization of the country’s mining industry – an important component of its green and smart mining initiative – despite having only started commercializing self-driving vehicles in 2022.

The global autonomous mining truck market is expected to be valued at US$1.6 billion in 2025 and, according to Allied Market Research, is projected to reach US$12.5 billion by 2035, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 23.2% from 2025 to 2035.

Autonomous mining trucks are self-driving vehicles mostly suited for open-pit mines with the capability of following an exact route every time. The elimination of human errors improves safety –  primarily by removing the threat to drivers as most accidents in mining involve landslides – and helps improve mining productivity due to the 24/7 working capability.

As well, electronic and hybrid autonomous trucks are being introduced in some mines, which can reduce mining-related carbon emissions. However, the higher cost of this solution is the main concern for miners.

“A traditional autonomous mining truck only costs around 1 million yuan (US$0.14 million); however, an autonomous mining truck costs around 1.5 million yuan, and an electric autonomous truck costs around 2 million yuan,” says Xing Yonggang, the chairman of Inner Mongolia Tongli Cheng Mining Construction Engineering Company, which manages coal mining projects in Inner Mongolia for the state-owed China Coal Energy Company. “This means, if we update all the mining trucks to the most advanced ones, the cost doubles. Also, to build a battery swapping station for electric trucks costs around 20 million yuan, which is also a huge investment.

“We are still in the pilot stage, with around 50 sets of excavators at this mine site – one excavator needs six to eight mining trucks to transport coal. Currently, we only use diesel-fuelled autonomous trucks with one of the excavators to assess the possibility of wider use. Data is key to ensuring the smooth operation of these autonomous mining trucks.”

Foreign competitors

The US company Caterpillar and the Japanese company Komatsu have dominated the global autonomous mining trucks market for years as the earliest players in the market, providing vehicles for large international mines. Komatsu launched the world’s first commercial application of an auto haulage system (AHS) in 2008, while Caterpillar followed in 2013.

The AHS solution is mature in Australian mines, which have used a large number of autonomous mining trucks for over 10 years. However, it is difficult for foreign manufacturers to enter the Chinese autonomous mining trucks market due to differences in terrain, climate and vehicle types.

“Coal mines are different from iron or copper mines, where trucks follow relatively fixed routes from mining sites to processing stations,” Xing notes. “On the other hand, coal mining sites are always moving during the excavating process, meaning that operators of autonomous trucks need to retrieve data and reroute the trucks frequently.”

Due to the difficulties in the actual operation process, contractors of coal projects have specific considerations when choosing a truck provider. “We need a dedicated team on-site to onboard the solution, including data collection and multiple tests, and to handle all the issues that might arise during the working process,” Xing points out. “Technicians also need to train the autonomous truck operators in a process that can take as long as one year.” This is also an advantage of Chinese AHS providers when compared with foreign ones.

Unlike foreign providers, which are generally led by original equipment manufacturers, such as Caterpillar and Komatsu, the main participants in China are driving technology companies partnering with vehicle manufacturers. These tech firms, such as Waytous, CIDI, Eacon Mining and Tage Zhixing, are collaborating with leading commercial vehicle manufacturers, such as Shaanxi Tonly Heavy Industries Company, Zhengzhou Yutong Bus Company, Sany Heavy and LGMG. Together, they are actively promoting the commercial implementation of unmanned driving in open-pit mining areas.

Fundraising, expansion

Among AHS tech companies in China, Tage Zhixing has raised the most funds – 1.2 billion yuan. Eacon Mining, the second-largest fundraiser has attracted a total of 760 million yuan, completing its Series C funding of 300 million yuan in March 2024, with Xinghang State-owned Assets Investment Company and Zijin Mining Group as the round’s lead investors. Eacon Mining has raised a total of 700 million yuan over the past six months.

Chinese driving tech companies have started to expand their overseas market with different strategies. Waytous introduced its first batch of electric autonomous off-road vehicles to a cement mine in Thailand’s Saraburi province, partnering with Siam Cement Group, the largest cement company in Thailand. This project was completed in January 2024.

In Australia, Eacon Mining established Eacon Australia in Perth in 2023 and tailored solutions for the local market. For example, the company combines selling new autonomous mining trucks with retrofitting conventional trucks with autonomous technology. This approach is necessary because the trucks used in Australian mines have larger capacities, ranging from 190 to 370 tonnes, while in China, the usual mining truck capacity ranges from 45 to 90 tonnes.

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