As shipping grows, journey to autonomy slows

February 6, 2019

Just as we are growing increasingly accustomed to reading stories and hearing speeches about the introduction of automated, remote-controlled and autonomous ships, there is a growing number pointing out the obstacles in their path.

These range from the practical, legal and technological to the market-driven: whether there is market demand outside a few obvious applications. There are also serious questions about the effects on society, not least to the workforce affected by autonomy.

Nonetheless the trend is set: automation is increasing in the transport sector and the barriers to its adoption are gradually receding. It is more in the tone and perception of reality that the conversation – in shipping at least – needs to take place.

So when the World Maritime University and International Transport Workers’ Federation published a report that appeared to claim that the global seafarer workforce will actually double in size by 2040, eyebrows were raised.

The finding certainly makes for a good headline. Simulations carried out suggest that while the introduction of highly automated ships decreases the growth rate in the demand for seafarers, the increase in the volume of seaborne trade projected in the next 20 years means that the projected number of seafarers required by 2040 could be significantly higher than its current level. In some scenarios, the figure is almost double than the approximately 1.6m seafarers working today.

The report does not lead on that statistic and one assumes that the ITF had a strong hand in its inclusion in the communique. However the report is the first serious attempt outside vendor marketing efforts to quantify what increasing automation could mean for the industry.

Of the report’s key findings, the first is perhaps the most obvious; that while there are clear benefits to automation, in many areas of global transport, the pace of change will be gradual and will differ by sector.

In maritime transport, the adoption of novel technologies tends to occur at a slow pace and the indications are that agreed international guidelines and regulations regarding autonomous transport are unlikely to be achieved within the next decade. However, if a strong economic benefit is expected and social acceptance exists, highly automated transport solutions could be implemented at the regional level and governed by national legislation or bilateral agreements among adjacent countries.

Challenges that need to be resolved across all transport modes are mainly operational and legal ones though this appears possible with the next 10 to 15 years. The report finds that while the introduction of new technology will be gradual, disruptive technologies may emerge in sooner in some sectors around operations – the majority with the air and rail sectors.

The report’s second major finding is that an increasing volume of trade will generate more demand for transportation but that regional changes in transportation patterns are expected.

As a derived demand industry, growth in transportation is primarily a response to the economic environment and population growth.

Historically, there has been a close correlation between the GDP growth and transport volume, a pattern confirmed in the study – though it must be said that fewer economists believe it will automatically be the case in the future. From the perspective of the economy, medium term growth in GDP per capita has a positive effect on the volume of all freight transport as does projected population growth.

For example, efforts to mitigate climate change will prioritise renewable energy, leading to a reduction in transportation of oil and related products after 2030. Moving from 2030 to 2040, its projection shows that demand for maritime transport is likely to increase at a less rapid pace – with the growth primarily in non-energy commodities.

With the gradual pace in the introduction of technology and the increased volume of trade, the effect on employment is somewhat predictable: low and medium skilled workers will be exposed to the high risk of automation. However, the report finds that pace of introduction and diffusion of technologies will depend on differences in national development and their comparative advantages.

Transport workers face a similarly high risk of automation as their counterparts in other industries and technologies such as artificial intelligence and mobile robotics, together with the declining price of computing power are likely to have a similar impact on the tasks of workers across most industries. The transport sector has a similar potential for automation as other industries, especially for low and medium skilled groups of workers.

However the research indicates that the pace through which the introduction of automation technologies takes place will vary from sector to sector. Historical trends show that automation of routine-based tasks has led to the decline of middle-skill jobs, forcing those workers in the middle to shift to low-skilled and low-paid jobs an effect that will continue to grow.

The report’s final plank is that automation is influenced by the regional context; countries and regions are not at the same level of readiness of adoption.

While the pace and extent of new technology introduction and further automation will vary, the change will also depend on a number of factors including regulation and human capital. The pace of adoption also depends on the benefits that automation is expected to contribute to socioeconomic progress in a country.

Technological change has always been regarded as an indispensable ingredient of development throughout the world, though in some countries, the necessary infrastructure and relevant business models do not exist, which delay the process.

However the leaders are already well established. Countries with a higher readiness to introduce new technology and automation include Australia, East Asia, the US and Europe. African countries, as a bloc, are lagging behind in terms of technological advancement and investment, regulation, governance and infrastructure in all economic sectors, including in the maritime transport sector and countries in South America are also in the same position.