Can autonomous ships save the world?

August 15, 2019

Since the website is home to some articles that have previously cast doubt over the claims of the OEMs pushing autonomy as the logical endgame for the shipping industry, such a positive headline might be construed as a provocation.

In part it is, but like all the best questions, it depends entirely on perspective. Beyond the impact of digital technology, shipping has a bigger problem, which is the need for sustainability and to find new business models in a gradually decarbonising economy.

Autonomous ships are being touted as one of the best means to cut emissions by enough to meet the IMO’s 2050 CO2 emissions targets. Build a fleet of super-efficient, clean-powered ships, plugged into the supply chain and able to adjust microscopically to delays and interruptions and you have a solution that answers several questions at once.

The issues that concern those operating outside of the tech/start-up/OEM bubble is that this is so divorced from what shipping looks like today that the chances of achieving it by 2030 or even 2050 look slim.

So much remains to be done across so many areas, but the major issue must be a complete lack of anything like a regulatory framework, proven navigation and communications technology and a digital supply chain.

Still, as Director for Waterborne Transport with the European Commission Magda Kopczynska remarked recently “these issues are relative compared to the impact of automation on jobs and how the industry attracts and develops the skills it needs, when we don’t yet know what they will be”.

“The challenge for regulators will be how to develop a long term vision that encompasses zero emissions, zero accidents and an inclusive and balanced working environment.”

Developing an autonomous ship infrastructure means money and this means government support to address the gaps in technology and environmental performance. As might be expected, the European Commission’s perspective is built upon how to share the benefits across the widest possible group of stakeholders.

Kopczynska said that regulators “will need to strike a balance between offering opportunity for front runners to move ahead and to enable the second wave of adopters to catch up, so that they can take advantage of the opportunity” even if they lack the same access to capital.

When it comes to who assesses the development of a safety regime and quantifies risks, the IMO is the logical choice but the leading thinkers are urging that oversight is not left to the inventors. Co-operation between governments, regulators, classification and technology providers is the only way to go.

The OEMs also believe that it will be increasingly difficult to deliver autonomy without regulation, but that testbeds and platforms are needed in order to gather the experience needed to write them.
This in turn creates the risk of dominance for two or three major technology players and in turn buyer lock-in and a lack of choice. Not so, say the providers; to be a success, autonomy needs partners and especially SMEs for new technologies and the effect will be a consortium not a monopoly.

There is also a realisation that the slick marketing depicting large ocean going autonomous vessels was a little ahead of what is deliverable – more likely smaller coastal and short sea ships will make the move to electrification, automation and ultimately autonomy, much faster than ocean-going ships.

That could mean that the first autonomous vessels are seen on European waterways, as this sector combines a need to reduce local emissions with an ageing workforce and a challenge to recruit the next generation.

Attracting funding, by contrast, is relatively simple – at least in developed economies – what Kopczynska wants to see is “a bridge between autonomy pilots and projects at scale that the industry can adopt. There is a need to let the front runners run while also allow the broader benefits to be shared so that they can be brought back to transform the entire industry”.

How quickly the funds are released to enable the kind of pilots required to develop autonomy depends on local conditions and the pace of development by country. In Norway for example, as investment in oil and gas begins to decline, the opportunities for piloting programs could grow; other regions may not be so lucky.

But as public opinion continues to shift towards to achieving sustainability goals there is a realisation that a change is needed in mentality both inside and outside the industry. The movement of thousands of containers between Asia and Europe might be highly efficient but the system is subject to stress at the beginning and end of that voyage.

Kopczynska pondered the impact of digitalisation in the context of the container shipping revolution, but thinks it will be bigger, “because autonomous shipping could affect the entire industry, though it would not happen without the large scale ‘digitalisation of everything’ in the industry”.

“Making vessels more integrated into the wider transport chain is the real revolution,” she suggested. “Once the impacts of this are known, then it might be possible to describe a completely digitalized ‘transport system’.”

Her remarks – made at the SINTEF International Ship Autonomy And Sustainability Summit held in Oslo in June, suggest that the journey to autonomy is going to take more sharing than some entrepreneurs might once have imagined. But the evolution of thinking on this topic suggests that the OEMs, owners and innovators increasingly see it that way themselves.

Though there are projects designed to deliver full autonomy underway wider adoption depends more on a viable business case than the technology itself. And the kind of automation that will improve sustainability may not mean completely replacing crew but instead focussing on those in the most dangerous roles.

The industry’s problem with automation could be that it looks like a one-way bet, requiring complete commitment, which is overstating the extent to which a smart digital future will be a progressive collaborative rather than the fully competitive model we are used to.

Just as no one energy source is likely to power the fleet in future, there is no single way to autonomy. That is where its challenge lies.