Big Questions Surround Autonomous Shipping

Julie Hrdlicka

The time is now for the maritime industry and autonomous shipping.

The introduction of autonomous technology is increasing in nearly every mode of transportation. The future will enable autonomous operations in ways we could not imagine even a few years ago. These advances are not just limited to the aviation sector, or even the automotive sector. This trend is increasing within the commercial motor vehicle industry, and in maritime operations – two sectors not immediately thought of as users and operators of autonomous technologies.

As the surface transportation sector continues to integrate these technologies, enabling higher levels of safety and driving more efficiencies into the system, how can the shipping industry and port community respond and profit from these developments? Some key questions to inform this conversation include:

  • Are there emerging technologies and software that will enable and facilitate the use of advanced systems to guide our critical shipping industry?
  • How are advances in digital technology going to be hindered by current and future cybersecurity policies and regulations?
  • What are the legal obstacles for remote and/or autonomous shipping?
    Are there potential liability concerns?
  • How do we focus attention on the benefits of driving autonomous technologies into the maritime sector, including the value of efficiency improvements to minimize energy usage?

From what we have learned in application of autonomous technologies to date, the technical challenges will have to be successfully addressed, while the regulatory bodies and the public struggle to keep pace. Just as in the automobile industry, there are different levels of autonomy that the maritime world will confront, with each level creating different layers of risk and challenges. The regulatory hurdles, safety concerns, liability issues, among others will need to be addressed with a multi-faceted strategy that includes engagement with Congress, the Administration, and key industry stakeholders.

As autonomous policy issues continue to amplify across Washington, in the halls of Congress, and throughout the transportation sector writ large, it is time to address these issues head on. The day is fast approaching when the theoretical becomes operational. The political and regulatory processes in Washington require time to adjust, but those adjustments must begin now.

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