AMO VP testifies before Congressional committee on autonomous ships

AMO VP testifies before Congressional committee on autonomous ships

The complete transcript of Christian Spain’s written testimony can be found on the House of Representative’s website.

The dangers and concerns of autonomous shipping are far reaching and complex, testified American Maritime Officers Vice President, Government Relations, Christian Spain during a Congressional hearing held to discuss the implementation of experimental maritime technology on September 19 in Washington D.C.

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Spain questioned whether autonomous ships could perform one of the most essential and fundamental rules of the sea – rendering aid to someone distressed at sea. Spain, who was representing the interests of the major U.S. organized maritime labor unions, also questioned autonomous vessels’ capacity to navigate a real-world environment where human-controlled vessels are making decisions in real-time and not in a laboratory.

“The duty to render assistance at sea is a longstanding maritime tradition that has evolved over centuries. It is deeply rooted in the principles of maritime ethics and human solidarity. While it does not have a specific age or date of origin, this duty has been recognized and practiced for as long as humans have been engaged in maritime activities,” Spain said. “Vessels have a duty to render assistance by providing manpower, equipment and/or shelter to survivors in the event of a maritime emergency. This duty goes back a millennium and cannot be shirked because it’s inconvenient for innovative technology.”

Also testifying before lawmakers were representatives from the United States Coast Guard and autonomous ship technology manufacturers. While the main topic was discussing how the Coast Guard could leverage autonomous technology, the focus quickly shifted to the emerging technology’s impact on the commercial maritime sector.

“We must also consider automation’s potential impact on maritime jobs. Maintaining the availability of well-paying jobs and minimizing the displacement of jobs from automation is a priority of mine,” said Congressman Rick Larsen (D-WA). “Innovation cannot come at the cost of American jobs. To this end, it is important to include labor organizations early in conversations around a regulatory framework.”

Congresswoman Hillary Scholten (D-MI) questioned Spain on who should be held responsible for a marine casualty if an autonomous vessel is involved. Usually that responsibility and liability fall on the captain of the vessel.

Spain, who also represents the worlds 1.9 million seafarers at the International Maritime Organization discussing autonomous vessel issues, responded that no one has been able to solve who would be held responsible in such a situation. Some might point to the owner of the vessel, but if it is the autonomous system on board that has failed, then perhaps the manufacturer should be liable, he said. Such complex issues need to be fleshed out in great detail before autonomous ships should be deployed in U.S. waters or even before regulations are implemented.

“Determining liability in the event of accidents or incidents involving MASS [Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships] is a complex and evolving issue,” Spain said. “Shipowners worry about the potential legal disputes and the associated financial burdens that may arise from unclear liability scenarios. The uncertainty surrounding the safety and liability aspects of MASS can lead to increased insurance premiums which are viewed as an additional financial burden.”

While there are major concerns over autonomous shipping within the maritime industry, Spain told elected officials that there is a place for experimental technology within the industry that can help seafarers perform tasks more efficiently and safely.

These innovative technologies have already been implemented but are used as a tool under the control of well-trained professional mariners, he said.

“The committee should prioritize safety, remain cognizant of the evolving landscape of commercial shipowners concerns and underscore the importance of environmental responsibility when deliberating on the future of MASS technology in the maritime industry,” Spain testified. “Digitalization in the maritime sector allows the further automation of some functions and better control of processes as a whole. It can enable the increased use of remote-control technology. Many of these technologies could be used to benefit seafarers and improve safety conditions while providing more efficient operations. Other than in niche markets, this technology should be used as a tool and not a complete replacement of seafarers.”