Autonomous ships and their legal implications

The shipping industry is preparing for a revolution from labour-intensive to autonomous shipping. The world has already witnessed a number of prototypes undergoing trials so that the commercial operation of Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) can one day become a reality. The progress reached so far suggests that we are no longer looking at the distant future.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has already completed a regulatory scoping exercise on MASS, which was initiated to evaluate the extent to which existing IMO instruments might be adapted to apply to vessels with different degrees of autonomy. In so doing, the IMO reviewed a long line of international maritime instruments against four main degrees of autonomy expected of MASS. 

The Comite Maritime International’s work has also been fundamental in mapping out potential areas where action needs to be taken, to ensure the right regulatory framework is in place to produce outcomes appropriate for further developments in this field.

The key question is how best the law can facilitate the commercial use of these new technology vessels, as well as giving parties the certainty they need in their future transactions involving such vessels. In addressing these issues, the question of sea carriers’ liability will be far less straightforward. With the new technology vessels increasing their autonomy in their operations, machine learning algorithms will begin to assume the tasks that are traditionally performed by humans. These include the navigation and management of vessels, both of which involve professional skill and judgment. Consequently, because human involvement will no longer be the main culprit of accidents at sea, there will be legal challenges ahead where the cause of an accident is a cyberattack and/or a defective system. 

On the whole, it would be naïve to think that the current rules and regulations can provide adequate protection for sea carriers and cargo interests when new technology vessels start to operate. However, in the space of a short article, no attempt can be made to map out and analyse all the areas where regulatory changes are needed.

As we await the legal framework to govern the commercial operation of these new technology vessels, it is important to emphasise the role of purposive interpretation of international maritime conventions. Recently, this point has been made by Lord Hamblen in The CMA CGM Libra [2021] 2 Lloyd’s Rep 613 (at para 35), where his Lordship referred to Article 31.1 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969, which provides: “A treaty shall be interpreted in good faith in accordance with the ordinary meaning to be given to the terms of the treaty in their context and in the light of its object and purpose”.

With this in mind, it can safely be assumed that before the new regulatory framework is put in place, English courts will no doubt be astute in employing purposive interpretation, giving the necessary flexibility and adaptation needed to the international maritime conventions in the interests of all parties involved. In this respect, it is even more important for parties to make sure they choose English law and jurisdiction in their contracts as they navigate these uncharted waters.

On this topic, see also Melis’ article published in Industrial Law Journal: 

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