“Are autonomous ships without responsibility?”
Autonomous ships can become Norway’s maritime moon landing. But does today’s legal framework hang on to the changes?
by lawyer and partner Herman Steen and lawyer Sindre Slettevold, Wikborg Rein
Published 03.04.2019 07:20
Norway is already a leader in maritime autonomy - that is, technology that allows a vessel to sail itself, regardless of human interaction. The world’s first autonomous and full-electric freighter , “Yara Birkeland”, is already under construction and it is estimated that the ship will replace more than 40,000 annual truck trips with fertilizers from Herøya to Brevik and Larvik. Similarly, the food distributor ASKO plans autonomous and fully electric cargo ferries across the Oslo Fjord, which will save 1 million road kilometers annually.
These are just some of several projects that signal that the Norwegian shipping industry is really taking the step into the future and is focusing on environmentally friendly transport. But the benefits of autonomous ships are not only related to the environmental aspect, they will also remove traffic from the roads and provide cost savings compared to both road transport and conventional ships.
Changes the risk picture
Autonomous ships will also change the risk picture. Today, most ship accidents are due to human failure, and the development of autonomous ships is believed to reduce the number of accidents. In order to prevent collisions and other accidents, autonomous ships will, among other things, be equipped with sensors such as radars, GPS and infrared cameras that will provide the most complete picture of the surroundings, as well as systems that make decisions about courses and speed. However, this does not mean that accidents will be avoided with autonomous ships. New risk factors are emerging, such as failures and limitations in technology, cyber risk and hacker attacks.
The changes in the risk picture will undoubtedly affect all market players, both shipowners, charterers, cargo owners, banks, insurers and many more, as well as new entrants such as autonomous system operators and operators navigating or controlling the navigation of ships from onshore control centers. It is assumed that the existing shipping insurance policies could be used for autonomous vessels with some adjustments. For the insurers, the big question - here as otherwise - will be about understanding and praising the risk correctly.
Are Autonomous Ships Without Responsibility?
One main question is how the development of autonomous vessels will fit the existing regulations, both in terms of technical and regulatory requirements, but also in terms of responsibility. If an autonomous ship is involved in an accident that causes damage to a third party, the shipowner’s liability is, in principle, conditional upon the shipowner himself or anyone who has performed work in the ship’s service being accused of blaming it. When there is no crew on board and the human element is not present - can one prove guilty? Can errors in the navigation algorithms mean fault? Can one say that an incorrect decision by autonomous systems with artificial intelligence involves guilt? Furthermore, it is a matter of whether the shipowners will be responsible for the fault of the system suppliers and control room operators.
The shipping regulations set a number of requirements for how a ship is to be navigated in order to avoid the risk of collision. Some of these requirements can clearly be met by pre-programmed algorithms. But will an autonomous system be able to show good seamanship in unforeseen situations?
Here there is a need for clarifications, and as usual, the technical development lies ahead of the regulations.
Norway’s competitive advantage
Already today it is possible in Norway to conduct testing and commercial operation of autonomous ships in special test areas, thanks to the close cooperation between the Norwegian maritime industry and Norwegian maritime authorities, which has expressed the desire to contribute to Norway taking the position as world leader in autonomous technology. On the other hand, when it comes to international traffic with autonomous ships, one is dependent on international regulation, and here both the EU and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) will play a crucial role.
In 2018, the IMO started a review of the need for adaptations to the international regulations in order to enable autonomous speed, including in terms of maritime safety, manning and operation. However, this review is expected to take several years. For the time being, the Norwegian authorities’ positive attitude implies a clear competitive advantage for the Norwegian maritime industry, which has seized the opportunities this has created with both hands. So, just keep your steady course going forward.