Slow take up predicted for autonomous ships

Paul Gunton

Paul Gunton · 18 January 2019


The pace of change towards autonomous ships will be slower than many have predicted and their downward pressure on demand for seafarers will be less than might be expected, according to a report published on Tuesday (15 January) by the World Maritime University (WMU).

Called Transport 2040: Automation technology employment – the future of work, the 170-page report looks at the impact of autonomous ships and other automation on employment and skills in various transport sectors up to 2040.

It was funded by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) whose general secretary Stephen Cotton said it contained some elements that his organisation “probably doesn’t like” but welcomed it as “a fact-based independent report” that will “tackle the future of transportation and the challenges we in the maritime sector need to respond to.”

He was taking part in a launch presentation at IMO’s London headquarters during which one of the report’s authors, WMU vice president professor Jens-Uwe Schröder-Hinrichs, said that its main conclusion was “very positive” because “in the foreseeable future qualified human resources with the right skills will still be needed in transport.” One of the reasons for this is that “the pace of introduction of technology and automation may not be as fast as is sometimes the conclusion when you read certain publications.”

Although he did not identify specific references, one recent prediction by Rolls-Royce vice president for innovation Oskar Levander suggested that a commercial transatlantic voyage by an autonomous bulk carrier will be possible by 2025, by when he predicted that IMO will at least have guidelines in place to support such operations.

Graph 1

WMU’s researchers had spoken to “certain manufacturers”, Dr Schröder-Hinrichs told ShipInsight, “but our research concludes that some of their timelines … may not necessarily be the ones that will be seen in reality.” He acknowledged that technical feasibility for autonomous ships exists now, “but to what extent will [manufacturers] be able to sell that technology?” he wondered.

He said that local factors could encourage its introduction in regions where there are specific economic benefits or where certain types of skills were unavailable, but “when you talk to shipowners [about their] appetite to invest in highly-automated or autonomous ships, you very often find that they do not seem to be too enthusiastic.”

In its analysis of the impact on seafarer demand, the report focuses on that category – ‘highly-automated ships (HAS) – rather than fully autonomous vessels and it includes the graph at the head of this item, which shows that the global demand for seafarers will continue to rise despite the advent of HAS, which the graph suggests will have an impact from 2020 onwards.

It is based around a forecast prepared in 2016 by BIMCO and the International Chamber of Shipping and shows that, by 2040, the impact of HAS will have reduced the total that was predicted in that earlier analysis by 22%. However, because of the growth in world trade, this still means that the total demand for seafarers will have grown. “For the period under analysis, all our simulations point towards growth in the demand for seafarers from 2020 to 2040,” the report states.


It goes on to say that, “in some scenarios, the figure is almost double the approximately 1.6M seafarers working today,” but it does not offer details of those scenarios. Dr Schröder-Hinrichs later told ShipInsight that its forecasts were based on currently-available data, such as that used for BIMCO’s forecast. “If we follow the BIMCO scenario, that would lead to the demand [figure] of almost twice as many seafarers as are currently employed,” he said.

It was one of a number of details not included in the report, he said, to keep it to a presentable size. “In the coming months we will probably publish more working papers as a follow-up to the study with some more details,” he said.

Nor does the report make predictions about seafarer supply so ShipInsight asked Dr Schröder-Hinrichs during the briefing whether, as world trade increases, autonomous ships will become essential if demand for seafarers outstrips their availability. “The very short response is ‘Yes’,” he said, with that trend becoming initially apparent in regional situations because of the local factors he had outlined earlier.

In our later conversation, he hinted that seafarer recruitment trends will determine how autonomous shipping evolves. “If seafarers in larger numbers could be attracted [to the industry], we believe that conventional ships will have a fairly long future,” he said. If not, “we may actually see that automation come in earlier.”

His research team decided to adopt a middle way: “we believe it should still be possible to attract seafarers, although maybe not in large numbers, but let’s be optimistic about it,” he said. The balance between seafarer supply and demand may be a topic that will be developed in one of the future working papers, he said. “That is a very valid point that we should address.”

But it is not just a question of numbers, he suggested during the launch presentation; what will matter is the extent to which seafarers “with the right skills to operate certain types of ships” are available. Making 25-year forecasts about that has “a high margin of uncertainty,” he said.

WMU’s report considered the impact that HAS will have on workers with different skill levels across all transport modes and one of its four ‘key findings’ was that “low- and medium-skilled workers will be exposed to the high[est] risk of automation.” In the maritime sector, these account for more than 70% of the workforce, one of the report’s graphs indicates.

High-skilled workers face little threat from automation, the report suggests. “For this group, automation and technology are often introduced to assist them, so that individuals can concentrate more on their core tasks,” the report says. “The objective is to complement their work rather than replace them, whereas for the other groups a significant proportion of core tasks can be automated by 2040.”

In a case study looking specifically at autonomous ships, the report’s authors assume that these vessels will not be completely crewless but will have “fewer but highly-skilled crew members who control an increasing number of autonomous functions and operations on board.” As a result, “education and training will need to be adapted to equip seafarers with the new skills required,” it says.

It is a point that Stephen Cotton accepts. “Workers in lower-skilled jobs are more vulnerable in this transition,” he said, but the union believes that technology will create “opportunities, new jobs, new skills and new opportunities for us to build sustainable long-term professions.”

There will be, he said, “new kinds of employment and new kinds of skills and we believe, for all of our benefits, that workers will need to be reskilled, re-educated and redeveloped in this process.”

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