Vehicles vs. Vessels: the Race to Full Automation of Ships and the Regulatory Rogue Waves Still Ahead

PARKER POUSER—Recently, it seems like you can’t go online or read the news without being bombarded with articles about self-driving cars. The regulation of autonomous vehicles has been the subject of several high profile cases over the last few months. However, despite all the attention on cars and trucks, there has been relatively little coverage on the waves being made to automate an entirely parallel sector—the U.S. needs to start looking at its own regulation or possibly miss out on trade possibilities with countries that have moved to full vessel automation.

While it hasn’t received as much attention recently as self-driving Ubers, vessel automation is not something new. Autopilot has been a feature on vessels for quite some time now—not just on recreational vessels—but on almost every commercial ship, from ferries and cruise ships to the largest tankers plying the oceans. This is analogous to commercial airplanes which, aside from during takeoff and landing, are mostly operated by autopilot. Over the last hundred years, the industry has seen the progression of crew sizes on vessels scale down from hundreds per ship, gradually down to only a little over a dozen.  Crews are more ceremonial than anything while the ship is out to sea. However, while there is not much of a push to get rid of pilots completely, there is a significant push to move to full automation on vessels. While we have seen this reduction in crew sizes and the move towards full automation, we have not seen regulation moving at the same pace. This is especially relevant as autonomous ships are set to come onboard this year.

Currently, alongside the self-driving car revolution on our cities roads, autonomous vessels are being tested in our cities’ harbors. One thing, however, still stands in the way leveraging this technology. The regulatory body for the maritime realm, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), along with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), has set certain minimums for the amount of crew a ship has to have onboard. According to IMO International regulations, all vessels should be manned with a minimum number of crew members so as to be seaworthy. This hampers fully autonomous progress as, currently, ships must have humans onboard in control.

For automation to truly flourish on land and sea, both industries will require a regulatory revolution. Manning is just one of the many topics and issues that need to be cleared before these ships can become mainstream. One of the leaders currently in the push for automated vessels, Rolls Royce, has recognized the geographic issues that come with regulation. “Where in the world an autonomous vessel is operating and whether it is remote controlled or autonomous will have a significant impact on the rules applied to it.” Rolls Royce has taken the lead on the Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications Initiative (AAWA) to try and answer the difficult regulatory questions and push this issue forward.

Certain countries have created specialized “safety zones” to be able to advance this work and figure out the potential issues that will need to be regulated. Currently, the Law of the Sea convention states in Article 21(2) that a country can modify certain rules within its territorial waters (12 NM from the shore) but the country cannot modify standards of safe manning and design as set by the regulatory body in regards to foreign vessels. In regards to a countries own ships the country is required to ensure safety in regards to manning by “taking into account the applicable international instruments.” It further states in the same article that each ship “is in the charge of a master and officers who possess appropriate qualifications.” How these safety zones are legal within the framework of the UNCLOS as currently written and the current IMO standards is a separate interesting question.

If the U.S. does not push for regulatory change, we may find ourselves utilizing potentially antiquated minimum crew requirements. This could be a critical miss for the U.S. if other countries move to automated ships and can’t enter U.S. ports due to manning regulation issues. For the time being, vessels will have to keep the internationally set minimums

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