Will autonomous ships be the “downfall” of the shipping sector?

Will autonomous ships be the “downfall” of the shipping sector?

Hundred-and-fifty-tonne vessels will cross the oceans without a crew. Industrial cities dragging water like tectonic plates. Like metal spectres. That is the future of the maritime sector if we go by its own forecasts.

(Marga Ferrer)

Hundred-and-fifty-tonne vessels will cross the oceans without a crew. Industrial cities dragging water like tectonic plates. Like metal spectres. That is the future of the maritime sector if we go by its own forecasts. Autonomous vessels have been on the agenda of shipping companies for some time, and the International Maritime Organization has been working since 2017 to ensure the safe and clean operation of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS). Their automation is progressing undeterred, although further developments are still required, both technological and regulatory, to reach the final stage in which ships are free to sail without a single human on board. For the time being, almost 100,000 ships and their crews are currently sailing the seas, carrying a large part of the world’s cargo. That is a lot of boats and a lot of jobs that depend on conventional shipping.

But the industry is not clinging to the past. To propel the digital shipping revolution, in June 2019, the IMO’s Maritime Safety Commission approved interim guidelines for testing autonomous ships, while Norway set up a test bed in the Horten Fjord and many international companies have begun work on pilot projects. Among the most noteworthy are the Yara Birkeland, a Norwegian container ship with Kongsberg technology, the development of which has been halted by the coronavirus; the Eidsvaag Pioneer, a ship operating off the Norwegian coast carrying feed for aquaculture (set to be automated through the European Autoship initiative); and the Mayflower, an autonomous ship developed by IBM and Promare, which will cross the Atlantic guided by Artificial Intelligence.

Similar benefits (not free from controversy) are forecast in the light of these trials: labour cost savings, elimination of human error, increased loading areas and the avoidance of the waste produced by crews.

There are also legal hurdles on various levels. “There will be no autonomous ships without autonomous ports, which are obviously part of national labour laws and regulations,” former seafarer Branko Berlan, representative of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) at the IMO, tells Equal Times. “It’s a complex issue and countries have to regulate many other parts of national transport before moving to the international level. Then, international autonomous shipping has to be adopted and regulated by international organisations and implemented globally,” he summarises. A major obstacle for autonomous ships is, in fact, the complexity of making them fit, legally, within a particularly conservative sector. In an interview with Aronnax Podcast, Henrik Tunfors, an advisor to the Swedish transport agency, pointed out that the IMO is unlikely to adapt its regulations before 2030. Until then, he believes, we will probably see the proliferation of marine drones or unmanned surface vessels, under the tutelage of coastal states.

The conventions with the greatest impact on autonomous shipping will be those concerning the safety of the crew and the ship itself. “The IMO will make the regulations less anthropocentric: it will deal with unmanned navigation by ensuring limited liability in the event of spills or collisions,” says Olivia Delagrange, a maritime lawyer and a partner with global law firm Kennedys. “For the time being, at least, the figure of the remote captain will be respected, keeping his civil or criminal liability intact. Later, if autonomous sailing becomes a reality, the company providing the software will be held liable in the event of accidents”, adds Delagrange. “The important thing is not to diminish environmental and commercial safeguards, and to ensure that a ship does not, for example, block the Suez Canal, re-enacting the Sinai War,” she concludes. These issues were supposed to be addressed at the recent session of the 102nd session of IMO’s Maritime Safety Committee, but all attention was turned towards Covid.

Another key challenge for the IMO, considering that maritime digitalisation is changing the profile of pirates and the dangers of cyber-piracy, is to prevent cyber-attacks such as the one suffered by Maersk in 2017, which cost 255 million euros (US$298 million). The first major step will be taken in January 2021, when the new IMO rules on cyber risk management take effect.

Impact on employment

Aside from the legal aspects, the likely proliferation of autonomous vessels raises questions about the future of work in the sector: will the vocational crisis be obscured or will maritime employment be destroyed on a massive scale? UNCTAD’s 2019 Review of Maritime Transport includes a study by the Hamburg School of Business Administration, which notes that automation will create new jobs, but they will be different. Automation, it points out, will create jobs requiring less physical strength and greater IT skills. A study by the European Commission (DG Mobility and Transport) indicates that technological innovations will provide opportunities for seafarers to work closer to home and to “engage in more complex and high-level tasks” as “the most routine and dangerous activities” are automated. Berlan backs up this optimistic vision: “Maritime trade is forecast to increase and this is sure to create more jobs”. Delagrange makes a similar observation, explaining that working at sea is no longer a calling for most young people and technology will take on the jobs that are difficult to fill.

However, not all seafarers agree with these projections. “Autonomous ships will destroy more jobs,” says Ismael Furió, a CGT union representative in the maritime rescue sector. “We have seen the consequences of their implementation, for example, with the unmanned machinery spaces: we’d never had unmanned machines before, but it’s not unusual now to see small ships with only one chief engineer, who is notified of any incidents by an alarm system in his cabin,” says Furió. “It’s like in the supermarkets, at first they sell you the self-checkout machines as an improvement and then, when you’ve forgotten about the cashiers, they end up disappearing. So much automation will be the sector’s downfall because crews will be cut and the few jobs available will become extremely low paid. It’s already happening, the Merchant Navy declares our jobs as difficult to fill, every year, when there is in fact a surplus of seafarers, but they only want seafarers at €350 a month, brought in from Senegal”.

“This type of automated shipping,” continues Furió, “is creating zombies. There are people on board who don’t see anyone for months at a time, such as those working on the maintenance of ships that are half a kilometre long and eight storeys high, with a dozen or so colleagues who they never come across. They know there are other people because the cook leaves them food,” says the union representative.

“Then you reach port and find yourself in a terminal well away from the city, so that people don’t see how ugly the world is, and you find yourself alone with [a small group of seafarers from another country] in front of a vending machine,” he explains, referring to the loneliness of the modern-day seafarer. “That’s also new. There used to be a micro hotel industry that lived off the seafarers who would spend five days in port unloading goods. Now it takes you less than a day to unload and you get back on board as soon as you can because if you take too long, they might not call you again,” says Furió, who finds it difficult to recruit union members in such circumstances. “When people reach the port, they’re usually pushed for time, and if they go out for a while to get some cigarettes and little else, the last thing they need is the union guy to come and fill their heads with proclamations. Trade unionism has disappeared from ships.”

Regarding the defense of the workers, Berlan has another perspective: “Automation will make the workforce move to ground jobs [off the ships], but there unionism will still be necessary. With the new working conditions, it will be crucial that there is collective bargaining,” he says.

Flags of convenience

Along with the extreme loneliness on cargo ships, another dysfunction of the maritime industry, directly related to the push to slash labour costs, is the widespread use of flags of convenience. Shipping companies fly foreign flags – most often that of Panama or Asian countries – so that they can reap the benefits of more lax regulations. How will these flags affect autonomous vessels? “Flags of convenience have proliferated because they mean lower crew costs; so when crew costs are no longer an issue, flags of convenience will no longer be as important,” says Delagrange. “They could, however, be used to protect people who are less scrupulous about technical matters and who might try out sub-standard autonomous vessels without the appropriate safeguards. If a system fails due to fog in Norway, it will be sent to Panama because it will be able to operate under that flag, for example. The IMO has to be very careful with these ships,” she says.

The IMO will not be short of work providing legal cover for a business, autonomous shipping, which according to a report by the consulting firm Thetius, is valued at US$1.1 billion a year (€923 million), with the prospect of growing by seven per cent, each year, to the greater glory of China, which owns 96 per cent of the 3,000 patents related to autonomous transport.

And economic aspirations are taking precedence over any theoretical environmental gains, which will only be achieved by changing the type of fuel used by the merchant fleet, according to the experts consulted. Autonomous ships will not, moreover, offer improved performance when it comes to tasks such as rescue operations, which require “insight, such as spotting who is having a nervous breakdown, who can get out on their own, and so on,” says rescue worker Furió.

All of this, together with the inadequate development of regulations and the fear of a vessel losing control and causing a catastrophe such as the Prestige oil spill off the coast of Galicia – unlike aircraft, ships do not have pre-set routes – means that shipping companies are limiting their investments and organisations are being cautious about the future of autonomous shipping. “Even if the technology advances, I don’t expect we will be allowed to sail around with 400-metre-long container ships, weighing 200,000 tonnes without any human beings on board,” the CEO of Maersk told Bloomberg in 2018. “The possibility of getting seafarers out of the sea is very distant, and I am not talking about decades but a century,” Berlan tells Equal Times.

For the time being, technology is only expected to assist the operations of ships and their crews, perhaps with operational redundancy. People and algorithms, living alongside in ships, like in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We also expect to see and are in fact already seeing that the new job profile of the seafarer will require technological training, and those seafarers without the resources to update their skills will be left behind as the technology advances. “A large portion of the people on board are from countries with no other employment opportunities, they work very cheaply and their access to retraining is non-existent: if they’re replaced by technology, they’ll go back to the difficult situations that they came from,” Furió concludes.

This article has been translated from Spanish.