What is behind autonomous ship finance?

Malcolm Latarche
Malcolm Latarche

30 August 2017

For some time now there has been a lot of talk and not a little action as well on the question of autonomous ships. Although some ship operators have expressed an interest and agree to participate in trials – NYK Line being the latest – most of the running has been made by ship designers, equipment suppliers, class or academia but the big question is at who’s behest?

The research and development needed for this is not cheap and while autonomous ships for naval use have obvious benefits and uses and would therefore attract financial support from governments it is harder to see many commercial ship operators wishing to contribute. Which makes it all the more surprising that the companies involved have managed to get as far as they have.

Arguably the reason for this is that in Europe where most of the research seems to be taking place, it is being done with the aid of funding from national governments and the EU. If it is hard to make a case for commercial shipping operations to wish to invest in autonomous ship research, it has to be even more so for governments to fund research that will not obviously benefit the peoples of the countries they are governing.

With the exception of state-owned fleets such as the USSR and Eastern European fleets of two decades ago and the Chinese fleet of today, almost all shipping is done with private or listed companies ownership. If those investing in conventional ships today decide to stay with that model, will the idea of autonomous ships just fade away or will governments push for the technology to be made mandatory?

Given the demands that are being made on shipowners today to meet environmental obligations, perhaps the money being spent on research into some technologies would have been better spent on assistance to meet the new rules.