Adoption of fully automated shipping will take decades, not years

The UK is the second least supportive nation in their attitude towards the development of unmanned vessels, according to a study across six territories (UK, US, Australia, China, Singapore and Hong Kong), and the least supportive of autonomous vehicles more generally.

The new report, published by global law firm Kennedys, polled over 6,000 people as well as gaining insights from key industry leaders in the transport and insurance sectors.

Fewer than one fifth of UK respondents said that they were comfortable with the idea of autonomous vessels (18%). This places the UK as the second least supportive of autonomous ships out of the six regions surveyed, behind only Hong Kong. In China, percentage support was more than double the UK, with 48% of respondents feeling at least somewhat comfortable.

The pattern is reflected in people’s broader opinions towards autonomous vehicles: 48% in the UK support partially autonomous vehicles, and only 28% support full autonomy: the lowest overall levels of support across all regions surveyed.

The main reason for their concern is safety (67%), with respondents specifically placing trust in human judgement over computers (63%).

Following discussions with maritime market practitioners, Kennedys have identified some of the key benefits and challenges presented by autonomous adoption. The exacting regulatory standards imposed on ships by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the Flag State where ships are registered, will pose a challenge around connectivity between ships and shore, particularly for the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

Autonomy at sea is an opportunity to help international shipping meet environmental concerns and regulations. The IMO’s anti-pollution measures and energy efficiency standards can be met through step-change in ship design with growing use of data-driven autonomous and connected vehicle technology.

Autonomous vehicle technology can also help the gathering of additional data on engine performance, enabling ship owners to identify parts that may need repairing or replacing before they fail. This helps reduce time in dry-docks while improving performance and safety levels.

One of the key concerns around automation in the maritime sector is the impact on employment: the shipping sector faces an existential challenge in the form of an ageing workforce with younger generations showing less interest to spend months away from home at sea. Incorporating autonomous technology in ship construction can help to reduce the potential for skills shortages in future. Furthermore, the ability for technology to replace labour could provide major cost savings. We are then likely to see a new type of ‘sailor’ who will be remotely working and able to go home after their shift.

The market also raises a number of key practical considerations: bad weather conditions and navigation into port may require manual control, while enabling high-speed internet connection while at sea to control and monitor vessels is costly and difficult, potentially taking decades to implement.

Ultimately, achieving automation of vessels at sea will improve public confidence in the technology, with a greater effort from global automotive OEMs and technology firms to accommodate for the growing demand and develop cost-effective, safe technology.

Michael Biltoo (pictured), Partner at Kennedys, said: “The UK public clearly has strong reservations about the adoption of autonomous vehicles. The challenges that face the maritime sector are particular and exacting: from multi-national regulatory frameworks to barriers of data transfer while off-shore, achieving the consensus necessary to facilitate global fleets of automated ships will be crucial in achieving marine autonomy.

“However, the benefits are clear and, ultimately, crucial: if shipping is to achieve the ever-tightening environmental standards set by a range of regulatory bodies, a far more data-driven approach to maritime logistics is absolutely necessary. Furthermore, the opportunity to reduce time in dry-dock repairs offers a clear long-term financial incentive to market participants. Greater automation in the sector is inevitable: there now needs to be a clear call-to-action on governments to create modern legal frameworks providing appropriate protocols on the behaviours of vehicle technology.

“If we are to achieve the public trust necessary, solutions need to also be provided around the storage, usage and sharing of the masses of data which will be collected by the next generation of autonomous vessels. This will require a collaborative approach across government, vessel manufacturers, software developers, insurers, law enforcement and consumer groups.”