Autonomy, subsidies and the power of unions

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 29 September 2017


Autonomy is a big topic in shipping today and the benefits of autonomy are regularly boasted by proponents. At the last MSC meeting, the IMO added the matter to the agenda although the impact on seafarer employment was at least recognised as well.

Earlier this month an interesting event took place in California – the home of Tesla where the concept of autonomy in transport might be said to have begun. California apparently has $1.5Bn of cap and trade income to distribute with the aim of reducing pollution from a whole variety of sources.

Around 10% of the available cash has been earmarked for subsidising zero-emission equipment at California ports.

As yet there has been no details as to what equipment might be purchased but container handling equipment and cranes would likely be high on the list.

Throughout the port sector globally, much has been said about the benefit of autonomous cargo handling equipment. However, it looks as though such things will not be on the shopping list for the Californian ports being allocated funds.

California’s port workers unions have successfully lobbied the Californian legislature and it has been agreed that any money allocated to ports cannot be spent on automated cargo-handling equipment. Increasing port automation has been a major concern of port workers unions just as the threat of autonomous ships has been to seafarers.

As far as autonomous ships go, much of the money spent on their development has come from government and EU funding.

Commercial shipping may be taking an interest as seen in the Yara and Bourbon projects and the Svitzer and Wartsila tests but there has been little else besides that has become public.

The future of autonomous ships might be less certain if European trade unions can copy the success of their US counterparts in convincing politicians that public money should not be spent on taking away jobs.

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