Chinese autonomous vessel set to enter service, warning from US unions

China’s first autonomous container vessel, the 300 teu, 5,000 dwt Av Zhi Fei, is set to enter service in October. The vessel will operate a short-sea route between Dongjiakou and Qingdao.

The autonomous vessel was developed at the Yangfan shipyard in Qingdao by locally based smart ship technology group Navigation Brilliance in collaboration with the China Waterborne Transport Research Institute and Dalian Maritime University.

The ship is capable of navigating at a maximum speed of 12 knots.

However, the future of transnational autonomous shipping has come up against its first major political problem. The president of the International Longshoremen’s Association in the US, Harold Daggett, has said that any shipping companies planning to utilize autonomous containerships without crew can forget about using US ports: “Don’t sail them into ILA ports from Maine to Texas, Puerto Rico, and Eastern Canada – they won’t be unloaded or loaded by ILA Members!” he said

Daggett claimed that “workers around the world are under assault from the threat of automation by greedy companies only interested in making money and eliminating workers who helped them build their success and companies”.

He said that “it’s got to stop, and my ILA will do what it needs to do to save our jobs and the jobs of maritime workers around the world.”

In 2018, Daggett negotiated a six-year agreement with United States Maritime Alliance (USMX) that prevented any automation or automated equipment at ILA ports. In exchange the ILA pledged to keep productivity levels above what automated equipment could produce. The ILA says that, apart from lower production levels due to the worldwide Covid pandemic, it has kept its promise and kept its members working.

 “The ILA will not work a containership without a crew aboard,” said Daggett. “Already one company developing these automated ships also plans for automated loading and unloading of cargo from these crew-less ships without workers. That’s not going to happen under my watch.”

The current ILA contract expires in three years. Daggett has said that he will continue to keep his members protected from the threat of automation.

“We will continue to negotiate for no automation, or automated equipment at ILA ports,” he said.