Earlier this year, Rolls Royce and towage operator Svitzer successfully tested the world’s first remotely operated commercial vehicle (Business Insider). From the quayside in Copenhagen, the vessel was undocked, manoeuvred and piloted to the Svitzer HQ before redocking. With Rolls Royce having previously planned to launch their first remote control cargo ships by 2020 (engadget), it seems they are well on track. The development of Norwegian company Seaway Innovations’ fully automated container loading systems & vessels, running on hydrogen fuel to reduce emissions, is also underway (Port Strategy).
The more pressing concern is the issue of safety due to workforce reduction. Although testing of autonomous vehicles and vessels have included drivers and crews ready on standby to take over if necessary, this may not always be the case. Although the European Maritime Safety Agency found that 62% of 880 global accidents between 2011 and 2015 were caused by “human erroneous action”, a further study conducted in March 2017 concluded that where accidents do occur, the consequences may be far worse on an unmanned ship than a crewed one (The Engineer); for example, in the case of fire breakouts.