Is shipping’s pioneering spirit dying?

Malcolm Latarche

Malcolm Latarche · 02 March 2020


A recurring theme at last week’s ShipInsight Conference expressed by speakers and audience alike was that the pioneering spirit seems to be dying in the shipping industry. It would appear that, if those views are correct, when it comes to new ideas and equipment, shipowners and operators are reluctant to do anything that is not driven by regulation.

Whether that is true or not does perhaps depend upon how the driving factors for innovation are regarded. For example, are all developments aimed at reducing fuel use a result of economic factors or the drive to decarbonise shipping? Intuitively one would think that there is a mixture of both factors at play.

Regulation does of course require a shipowner to make changes to or add equipment to their vessel. We have seen that most recently with ballast water treatment systems but even here we can discern that some owners were prepared to go further than others. Both the IMO and the US Coast Guard type approval procedures require a series of land-based tests followed by in service testing on board a ship.

Almost certainly no system could have gained type approval without the assistance of those owners who offered their ships as guinea pigs for the in service testing. Of course a cynic might say that this was just the economic factor coming into play with the owners concerned getting a free system as a reward for playing a part in the testing process.

Ballast water treatment is one of those aspects of regulation where there is no benefit for the ship operator concerned – beyond of course have a vessel that meets the rules and therefore being permitted to continue trading. There have been several others in the first two decades of the 21st century – VDR, BNWAS, double-hull tankers and LRIT are just some but there are many more.

With others such as ECDIS and AIS, the regulatory argument is less obvious. Both were seen as useful navigation tools and some owners were quite happy to install them even before the regulations making them mandatory were formulated. As was pointed out in the session on navigation at the ShipInsight conference, there are many ship types that are exempted from the requirement to install ECDIS and yet it is probably fair to say that many of those ships do have them on board. The same is probably true of AIS.

The economic drivers for innovation have always been there. Sometimes driven by a desire for a competitive edge and at others as in industry wide move caused by necessity. Mechanised propulsion was introduced over two centuries ago as a means of improving the performance of sailing vessels. The modern revival of sail – also presented at the conference – is driven by both economics and regulation although economics must be the main factor otherwise it would not be a few pioneers but every shipowner going down that path.

We have witnessed innovation in the specialisation of ships with a change from the general cargo ship of old into bulkers, containerships, pallet carriers, ro-ro vessels and more. Some of the innovations such as LASH lighter carriers and BACAT barge aboard catamarans may have fallen by the wayside but there were owners willing to give the ideas a go.

To date every advance in propulsion has been driven by economics with regulation playing just a small role. We have seen steam give way to motor because of both efficiency and manpower reasons. Then we have seen first a dominance of four-stroke engines then the rise of the two-stroke, fuels have changed from distillates to residuals for economic reasons. We have seen fantastic performance improvements due to turbochargers being added to engines and electronic engine control and so much more.

Almost all of those changes predated any regulation of exhaust gases from ships and it could be argued that as their development was purely driven by market factors, the reduction is fuel use and subsequent air pollution has been reduced in the 50 years between 1958 and 2008 (the benchmark for the latest regulatory round of reductions) by factors that make the latest ambitions in percentage terms seem almost negligible.

In some instances there have been subsidies available to help shipowners take advantage of new ideas. We can see this from some of the developments made mainstream by the Norwegian NOx fund financing all or part of pilot projects and more recently with the conversions to LNG facilitated by grants from Germany.

We can even say that the use of batteries onboard vessels is not a requirement but a choice. Norway’s requirements for emission free vessels has come about because a few pioneering shipowners were prepared to try batteries and to prove the concept, without their involvement would the idea have flourished or become just another patent application that awaited someone to run with?

Shipowners are under no obligation to become pioneers and the fact that some do offer up ships as experimental platforms would suggest that the pioneering spirit is still alive. Fuel cells, air lubrication, carbon-free fuels and more may become mainstream one day and if they do it will be the foresight of the owners that are trialling them now that should be credited and recognised.

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