Are regulations left in the wake of autonomous ships?

While not receiving the same media amount of coverage as other means of transportation, the technology for autonomous ships is rapidly developing, according to a recent article in Maritime Executive by Michael F Merlie, partner at law firm Gawthrop Greenwood, PC. He noted that earlier this year a Norwegian partnership announced plans to build the world’s first fully-autonomous containership and that the goal was for manned voyages to begin in 2018, with unmanned voyages beginning in 2020.

Rolls Royce announced earlier this year its collaboration with a Finnish ferry company in developing an intelligent awareness system for vessels, and expected to have the such a system commercially available by the end of this year. Rolls Royce has a goal of an autonomous vessel in commercial use by the end of the decade. For the maritime industry, much of the technology necessary for autonomous vessels is already in place but continues to be adapted. “Not surprisingly, the regulatory bodies are moving at a slower pace. While there is debate on the extent of change necessary for the regulation of autonomous vessels, certainly some challenges will be presented”, wrote Merlie.

He noted that the extent of regulatory change would depend on the level of autonomy permitted. Lloyd’s Register has published classification guidance for six autonomy levels, the guidance being intended to provide designers, builders and operators with clarity on identifying the desired level of autonomy. The first three levels all require that navigational technology is on a manned vessel to provide support in decision making. The next three levels all involve unmanned vessels with different levels of remote operation, including complete autonomy. The remote operation includes shore-based operators who can intervene when notified by the navigational system.

Vessels are generally subject to national and international regulation, with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) responsible for regulation of international trade. Merlie noted that the IMO had begun evaluating the need for modified regulations for autonomous ships in international trade. The international regulations would require multilateral agreements among the various countries participating in a particular trade. “The expectation is that any revisions to IMO regulations could take up to ten years due to competing interests”, wrote Merlie, observing that most of the projects currently underway with fully autonomous ships were intended for national waters under national regulation, and that European countries were taking the lead on this.

Merlie wrote that there was no clear consensus on what new regulations or modifications to existing regulations would be necessary. An area of particular importance would be modifications to collision regulations. “The existing regulations have standardized rules including when the ships are in sight of each other. These regulations do not contemplate autonomous vessels and will almost certainly need some revision. Rules on the obligations and responsibilities between manned and unmanned ships will need clarification”, wrote Merlie.

He concluded that the pressure for modification of regulations would only increase with the inevitable technological advancements. “The scope of those modifications will be based in large part on the permitted level of autonomy for vessels. Maritime law is one of the oldest and most settled areas of law in the world, successfully adapting from sail to steam and beyond. There is no doubt the same will hold true for autonomous vessels but expect some interesting developments.” [email protected];+1 610-696-8225