Autonomous shipping: there are no easy answers

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I am naturally sceptical of forums that aim to say anything authoritative about autonomous shipping. Speakers can make all sorts of forecasts and it will be a long time before anyone can know if they were right or not.

But I attended a webinar last week (30 June) for which a PR firm brought together a few of its clients who had relevant and realistic things to say about it. I don’t have space to cover very much of what they said, but I will pick up on two topics that caught my attention.

First, I was baffled by the result of one of the audience polls. We were asked whether we thought autonomous ships represent a threat or an opportunity for seafarers. It seemed a no-brainer: autonomous ships require fewer crew so they must be a threat to employment and I ticked that obvious box.

Yet when the results were announced I was in a small minority: only 22% of webinar attendees agreed with me, while 62% thought it presented an opportunity for seafarer employment. The other 19% didn’t know. Logically, we should all have chosen ‘don’t know’ because we don’t actually know, but if you were on the webinar and are among the 62%, please contact me using the link at the end of this commentary to tell me where the employment benefits will accrue.

The webinar’s moderator noted that the question echoed one that was asked by the seafarers union Nautilus for a survey published in February 2018, so I guess the webinar’s equivalent had been framed to make that comparison. I have since looked at that survey, which found that “the majority of seafarers (84%) consider automation a threat to seafaring jobs”. No surprise there, based on Nautilus’ membership, but the survey used the terms ‘automation’ and ‘autonomy’ in a haphazard way.

You’ll see that the question above asked about ‘automation’ but it also asked a question about the impact on safety of “unmanned remotely-controlled” ships (which is what I would call ‘autonomous’). In reply, 85% considered such ships to be a threat to safety, but in response to a very similar question, 61% thought that ‘automation’ “has the potential to make the shipping industry safer”. Confused? I certainly am.

For the record, the webinar also asked a similar question about safety and 65% of us believed that autonomous ships “represent more of a benefit [than a threat] to maritime safety.” This time I was among the majority, although I do have some specific safety concerns.

For example, what happens if there is a machinery failure on a fully-autonomous ship? I asked that question during the Q&A and Eero Lehtovaara, head of regulatory affairs at ABB Marine and Ports, said that if an unattended two-stroke main engine’s camshaft were to break in mid-Atlantic, “we would send in a tug.” If this had been an interview, I would have followed up with “where from?”, “what will the ship be doing in the meantime?” and “is that a safe response?”

Other equipment, such as electrical systems, might be fixable remotely and ABB already has a remote diagnostic centre “where we can do an astonishing number of things” on ships that have ABB systems installed, he said. But he acknowledged that my question “highlights the fact that in order for ships to be fully autonomous, it puts a huge strain on … the propulsion technologies.”

Another speaker, Marco Cristoforo Camporeale, who is head of maritime digital at Inmarsat, took that observation one stage further. “I struggle to believe that future autonomous ships could actually work with a big two stroke engine,” he said. Istead, autonomous ships should have fewer moving parts to make them simpler, he said, although he was content that “the systems [will be] complicated when it comes to software.”

My second takeaway comes from earlier in the webinar, when Eero had set out his main concern about autonomous ships: “do we understand what we’re talking about?” ‘Autonomy’, he said, is “a word that that we should be very, very careful with” and he clearly thinks we do not fully understand its implications.

He spoke about “the human in the loop” and the importance of how “the machine and the person on the bridge … support each other.” His words made sense to me. I have long been troubled by the assumption – it seems to me – that we are on an inevitable trajectory towards unmanned ships and he pointed out that already “a large number of functions [are] already digitalised or [controlled] by something other than a human being.” There is a big decision to be made about where this will lead: how should all this data be analysed “and, even more important, who gets to make the decisions, in what context and in what situation?” he said.

That’s big thinking. If we are not clear about those questions, we need to review our approach to autonomous shipping: just because we can do something does not mean that we should. He used a phrase that – although he said it in passing – has affected how I think about the whole subject of autonomy. “We need to figure out the social licence to operate,” he said. For everyone’s benefit, “ships or their technology or their systems or their subsystems need to be as safe as conventional ships.”

He related that to the markets and how they will respond to autonomous ships, but I like to think he had the wider community in mind. They will not issue a ‘social licence’ to autonomous shipping easily.

Eero put it like this: “we need to do this gradually. I don’t think it’s possible for us to jump from the Stone Age and then go directly to the Moon.”

• What impact do you think autonomous ships will have on seafarer employment? And what do you think are the steps we should take towards autonomous shipping? Email me now with your views.

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