Who is Driving the Ship?
I attended the annual LNG Symposium sponsored by pacific maritime magazine with every intention of writing an article on the status of marine LNG. The Symposium offered its usual array of industry and government leaders and, on balance, provided a positive outlook for LNG development in the United States. My editorial intentions, however, were sidetracked by a discussion I had with the managing editor of this publication about autonomous ships.
An internet search with the term "autonomous ships" turned up almost a million hits which demonstrate an increasing amount of attention, discussion, and study throughout the industry. I came across predictions from Rolls Royce, an early proponent of the concept, that autonomous ocean going vessels would be "routinely plying the world's seas in 10 or 15 years' time." It seems that a lot of people are getting serious about this subject. Almost every day we read about advances in driverless technologies, beer deliveries by driverless truck, and drone deliveries by Amazon, so the interest in autonomous ships is not surprising. But as one delves into it, a myriad of complex legal and operational issues emerge.
In general, the displacement of truck drivers or ship crews follows a trend that began with the Industrial Revolution. There has always been a desire to increase efficiency and productivity by eliminating more costly and less reliable human elements. After all, machines do not get sick, do not get tired, and do not strike for higher wages. This has contributed to advancing our standard of living and today, less than 1 percent of the population can feed the entire country and a large part of the world.
There are legitimate concerns about the extent to which autonomous operations replace activities that now support millions of jobs. For example, what happens to all of the long-haul truck drivers who lose their livelihood, many of whom do not have the education, skills, or youth to easily transition to another industry? The same questions would be asked about mariners if autonomous ships become a reality.
I had assumed that a desire to reduce labor costs was the principal driver behind the efforts to design and operate autonomous ships. In the international fleets this is not the case, since labor costs account for around 6 percent of operating costs, with fuel and capital costs being a far greater expense. A European Commission study estimates that total labor savings with a fully autonomous vessel would be around $7 million over a twenty-five year life of the vessel. However, these assumed savings would likely be offset by the additional capital costs of including redundancies and safeguards necessary to operate in a safe and reliable manner. Without an onboard crew, all of the routine and unanticipated maintenance would not be performed, leading to higher costs when the vessels are in dry dock, and higher risks of mid-voyage mechanical issues arising.
One suggestion that is made to support the concept is the high percentage of marine casualties attributed to human factors, (think Costa Concordia) such as fatigue, inattentiveness, or lack of training. This is no different from any other transportation mode and an issue of continuing concern for regulatory authorities. But the magnitude of risk posed by large vessels, carrying potentially hazardous cargoes and transiting congested waterways near population centers or fragile habitats, is significantly greater than the more localized risks posed by driverless cars or trucks. Although the technology exists to fully automate long-haul freight train operations today, the industry has been cautious in its embrace of the concept. One factor cited is the fact that, much like a ship, trains operate on line of sight and if obstacles are seen, it takes a significant amount of time to react and safely bring the train to a stop.
Thus, a significant investment would be necessary to construct systems that supplant not only the eyes and ears of the master on the bridge or the chief engineer, as well as the entire crew, but also the instinct and experience that are intrinsic to mariners. A technician monitoring the vessel from a location halfway across the world would not have the same intuitive feel for the interaction of wind, waves, vessel performance, and other subjective factors that must be integrated with the objective readings he or she is receiving. Not only is this difficult to replicate, any additional costs spent to mitigate this aspect of risk further undermine the assumed economic advantages of automation.
Indeed, if autonomous vessels become prevalent, one wonders how the people "sailing" the ships remotely will have acquired the actual sea-going experience to respond to unanticipated situations. There is the obvious question of what happens when the systems fail, are hacked, or there is a major failure in the propulsion or steering on the ship itself. This raises the possibility of a fully loaded vessel, perhaps a VLCC, under the control of people bent on crime or terrorism or dead in the water thousands of miles from shore. I can only surmise how this risk might be reflected in marine insurance rates as well as the new challenges this would offer to regulatory authorities.
The major impetus for autonomous vessels may be the growing concern about a lack of skilled maritime labor to meet current and anticipated future demand. There are clearly societal and cultural influences that contribute to the global decline in mariner recruitment. In his epic, "Two Years Before the Mast," Richard Henry Dana wrote: "There is a witchery in the sea, its songs, and stories, and in the mere sight of a ship, and the sailor's dress, especially to a young mind, which has done more to man navies, and fill merchantmen, than all the pressgangs of Europe." It's hard to imagine Dana's vision having the power to turn many adolescent heads today. So from a ship owners' perspective, it makes sense to seek alternative ways to keep ships running.
The introduction of unmanned engine rooms was driven in part by the growing shortage of trained mariners, as well as the technological advances that reliably govern engine performance. But there may be an irreducible minimum crew size due to the many tasks that must be performed to maintain and operate a vessel, and regulatory authorities have generally resisted efforts to further reduce crew size out of a concern for safety of operation.
The labor availability issue is real. Take, for example, the US Flag international fleet which has shrunk by almost 20 percent in the last decade. This is hardly a signal to a young man or woman to pursue a maritime career in this country. But are autonomous ships the solution, given the apparent issues and questions the concept engenders? The labor issue is not unique to the maritime industry, and governments are recognizing a need to cope with the effects of growing automation on jobs that traditionally offered long-term careers without the need for advanced education. The emphasis of the new administration on growing manufacturing jobs is one such example.
The issue of autonomous ships becoming commonplace is multi-faceted and complex, and involves policy, law, technology, and significant risk. Rather than seeing this as a natural evolution or progression, the breadth of the issue, and stakes involved, argues for a more deliberative and measured consideration of the potential short and long term implications.
John Graykowski (JohnG@maritimeconsults.com) is the former Deputy and Acting Maritime Administrator and is now a Principal of Maritime Industry Consultants, most recently working with marine operators and gas suppliers on regulatory and market issues associated with use of LNG as a marine fuel.