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Autonomous shipping – Caution required to avert the blind leading the blind

September 2019 - Transport. Legal Developments by Gauci-Maistre Xynou.

More articles by this firm.

The lure of unmanned transport services is no longer a science fiction scenario but a living reality.

Crewless merchant ships are already operating along rivers in Norway, Finland, Singapore and China. The advantages are plentiful because they reduce crewing and fuel consumption costs, increase the safety of life and cargo as well as allow for more efficient use of space in ship design.

While showcasing human ingenuity riding high on the crest of digitisation, crewless vessels are still no magical solution to seafaring challenges and problems. Champions of autonomous shipping affirm that accidents arising from human error will be drastically reduced. The more cautious argue that autonomous shipping proposals need much more critical thinking on principles of navigation and their application, particularly when facing rapidly changing weather conditions such as squalls as well as notoriously congested sea routes.

Consequently, maritime experts and stakeholders are increasingly voicing their concern about the marketing hype surrounding autonomous vessels since the wonder of technological advances cannot be allowed to gloss over safety issues which need to remain the primary focus in the intertwined complexities characterising global shipping.

This is not a matter of being conservative, a criticism that is often levelled at the maritime industry, but a question of being realistic to embrace innovation yielding a host of benefits while encouraging and fine-tuning hybrid solutions combining manned and unmanned elements throughout sea journeys and docking phases.

Current principles of navigation do not allow full dependence on digital instruments and consequently require seafarers to account for any data used in order to minimise incorrect evaluation and the spectre of fatal accidents, loss of valuable cargo and environmental disasters.

Maritime experts are therefore asserting that reigning in the hype of autonomous shipping is necessary to resist caving in to the pressure of changing for change’s sake. Having machines guarantee a serene working day together with a good night’s sleep must be every maritime operator and stakeholder’s primary wish. Yet it will take years for autonomous shipping to come close to materialising this dream at a flick of a switch.

Such a cautious approach renders a smoother transition period that also factors in the time required to train and/or retrain personnel. Once again a cursory glance in this regard manifests a striking imbalance between advanced and lesser advanced economies. Geographical constraints posit another salient limitation which translates into different paces of development and of harnessing innovation.

Meanwhile, the impact on fuelling, piracy, legal and environmental issues are still giving rise to grey areas in legislation proving that the ripple effect goes beyond seafarers and stakeholders. As a result even, lawyers need to become more tech-savvy and more importantly conceive new legislation in response to the lacunae arising from the use of AI.

As far as autonomous vessels go in today’s global context, it is better to err on the side of caution in order to avert a situation which may result in the blind leading the blind.

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