Regulation is the mother-in-law of invention

Paul Gunton

Paul Gunton · 10 January 2020


For hundreds of years, necessity has been the obvious ‘mother of invention’. We needed better communications and along came mobile phones and satellites. We needed better positioning accuracy and along came John Harrison’s clocks and eventually GPS.

But in shipping, that is no longer the case: regulation has taken over that role, making it – if I can coin a phrase – the ‘mother-in-law of invention’. This is not a revelation, of course. We would not have ballast water management systems if there were no regulations to address the spread of alien species. We would not have double-hulled tankers apart from OPA 90, following the Exxon Valdez spill. And I doubt whether we would have scrubbers and dual-fuel engines if there were no regulations on emissions.

There are plenty more examples where those come from, but I want to think about where this trend will take us. That is more difficult but, I suggest, more important than talking about where it has brought us. For that, I am going to speculate on two aspects of shipping that seem ripe for regulators to review.

Something that is certainly on the horizon is regulation for maritime autonomous surface ships (MASS). IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee is already exploring how its existing conventions will have to change to cope with MASS and the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST) has set up a MASS special interest group that is exploring the technologies behind MASS.

I believe that to operate autonomous ships safely will eventually require some type of mandatory monitoring for the ships and their onboard systems and common standards to define how they will interact with each other and with port infrastructure. On the back of those requirements will emerge new technology to enable these vessels to operate within that new regulatory framework.

Further into the future, I believe there will be financial regulations for shipping. In the same way that the Basel banking accords established in the wake of the global financial crisis have changed the way banks manage their risks, I think we will see something similar in shipping finance. There are already the voluntary Poseidon Principals, which link shipping finance to environmental performance, and I believe legislation could take this linkage forward.

The technology impact of this could mirror the development of IMO’s Data Collection System on fuel consumption and the EU’s Monitoring, Reporting and Verification of CO2 emissions requirements, which prompted some companies to develop sensors specifically to collect the relevant data. It seems a short step from there to installing monitoring equipment to confirm compliance with environment-related financing requirements.

Finally, I predict that we will see far more regional regulation in future. We already see it happening in the EU and USA and the sulphur cap initially appeared to be prompting some states to break away from the global consensus and threatening to not implement it.

We already have a fragmented approach from port states in relation to their response to ships with non-compliant fuels which is a result of there being no forum for port states to agree a unified approach. If states and regions also go their own way on setting the regulations themselves, then technology would have to provide a means for ships to comply with regulatory inconsistencies as they journey round the globe based on a wide range of data.

Of course, I may be wrong on all these suggestions. But what I am confident about is that technology can rise to the challenges. It may take some time, as we saw with the US ballast water treatment standards, but there will be solutions eventually.

Less easy is predicting the direction from which the next regulation-driven wind will blow.

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