In response to Amazon Enters Trillion Dollar Ocean Freight Business: How Many Jobs Will Vanish? a reader commented fully autonomous ships will not be here until 2050. Actually, 2020-2025 seems like a realistic timeline.

IEEE Spectrum says, Forget Autonomous Cars—Autonomous Ships Are Almost Here.

My colleagues and I at Rolls-Royce anticipate that the first commercial vessel to navigate entirely by itself could be a harbor tug or a ferry designed to carry cars the short distance across the mouth of a river or a fjord and that it or similar ships will be in commercial operation within the next few years. And we expect fully autonomous oceangoing cargo ships to be routinely plying the world’s seas in 10 or 15 years’ time.

That people should be seriously interested in robotic ships is easy enough to explain: Such ships are expected to be safer, more efficient, and cheaper to run. According to a report published by the Munich-based insurance company Allianz in 2012, between 75 and 96 percent of marine accidents are a result of human error, often a result of fatigue. Remotely controlled and autonomous ships would reduce the risk of such mistakes and along with it the risk of injury and even death to crew members, not to mention the dangers to the ship itself.

The threat posed by piracy to ships and their crews would also be reduced. That’s because uncrewed ships could be built so that they’d be very difficult to board on the high seas. Even if pirates got aboard, access to the controls could be made unavailable. Indeed, the computers in command could immobilize the ship or have it steam in a circle, making it relatively easy for naval authorities to reach it. Recapture would also be easier than is usually the case in such situations because there would be no crew held hostage. And without a captured crew to ransom, the target of the piracy is significantly less valuable.

Another advantage of remotely controlled and autonomous ships is that they can be designed with a larger cargo capacity and lower wind resistance. That’s because, with no crew to accommodate, certain features of today’s ships can be eliminated—for example, the deck house, the crew quarters, and elements of the ventilation, heating, and sewage systems. This will make the ship lighter and sleeker, cutting fuel consumption, reducing operating and construction costs, and facilitating designs with more space for cargo.

Finally, intelligent ships will provide owners and operators with a way to respond to the growing shortage of people who have the requisite maritime skills. With more and more mechanical and electronic systems on board, ships are becoming increasingly complex, needing skilled technicians to keep them working. At the same time, seafaring as a career is growing less attractive, with fewer people from developed nations wanting to spend weeks or months at a time away from home and family. Remote and autonomous operations could facilitate the transfer of jobs requiring high levels of education and skills to ports of call or to operations centers on land, making such careers more interesting to young people entering the industry.

I can’t point to examples in the water, but Rolls-Royce is working now on the specifications and on preliminary designs for the first generation of advanced intelligent ships. My colleagues and I are bringing together researchers at universities, ship designers, equipment manufacturers, and classification societies to explore the economic, social, legal, regulatory, and technological factors that need to be addressed.

The first intelligent ship to go into commercial operation will use mostly technology that already exists. That vessel will likely ply the coastal waters of a single “flag state,” a seafarer’s term for a country that can provide the legal basis for a ship’s operation. The ship could be a ferry, a tug, or other coastal vessel traveling within a very confined area. It could still have a crew on board, although they will be carrying out duties other than navigating the vessel.

Indeed, the testing of such ships is not far off.

Expect such a ship by 2020. By 2025, some forward-thinking shipping companies will be operating remotely controlled, completely uncrewed vessels on the high seas. Five years beyond that, uncrewed oceangoing vessels will be commonplace.

About the Author

Oskar Levander trained as a naval architect at the Helsinki University of Technology. After gaining experience in various other posts, he joined Rolls-Royce in 2012 as vice president of Innovation, Engineering, and Technology, Marine.

Debate Over

Fully autonomous ships are coming sooner than most suspect. They will be faster, more fuel efficient, and cost less to insure.

Accident rates will drop as will odds of piracy. In regards to the timeframe, I suspect Levander is purposely cautious. There are too many benefits for this to take as long as 2030 if such a ship will be operating by 2020 as he states.

By 2025 it will not be just “forward-thinking” shippers using such technology. By 2025 it will be commonpalce, and by 2030 it will be nearly all of them.

Possible Designs

ship-designs

What About Jobs?

In my Amazon article, I asked but did not answer the question: How Many Jobs Will Vanish?

In the grand scheme of things, especially from a US perspective, not that many. Crew sizes have been shrinking for some time, and most crews are not US-based anyway.

Thus, the IEEE Spectrum headline beginning with “Forget Autonomous Cars” is incorrect. In contrast to shipping, millions of truck driving jobs will vanish, in the US alone. Moreover, trucking adoption will be nearly instantaneous.

The Rolls-Royce article puts to shame widely-held notions regarding piracy. Similar constructs apply to truck hijacking, as I have been saying for years.

As with shipping, insurance rates will plunge for truckers. The biggest cause of truck driving accidents is human error, typically fatigue.

And instead of having to take mandated rests,  autonomous trucks can drive nonstop for days. The cost of the driver vanishes.

Hugely disruptive changes are coming, quickly, and for obvious reasons. The nay-sayers look increasingly foolish with their denials.

Mike “Mish” Shedlock