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David Appleton: the impossible questions around automation

4 July 2023

Progress on regulating autonomous ships remains painfully slow, despite the efforts of the IMO Maritime Safety Committee in June this year.

The aim is to draft a Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (MASS) Code, but a great deal of the discussions still focused on agreement of fundamental principles and definitions. The fact that we are still in this position more than five years after the IMO launched its regulatory scoping exercise on MASS demonstrates the inherent difficulties in designing regulations for ships which are not yet in operation.

With flag states and NGOs often holding divergent views as to how the operation of MASS will look, difficult decisions are continually kicked into the long grass.

Where decisions are made, it is unclear whether some of the more creative interpretations of international conventions will survive their first meetings with reality.

Take the question of how an autonomous ship could comply with the watchkeeping requirements of STCW – which clearly state that the watchkeeper must be present onboard. The group tasked with developing the MASS Code came to the decision that as the STCW Code applies to seafarers, then if there are no seafarers onboard, the watchkeeping requirements do not apply. Whilst this interpretation is convenient for progressing development of the code, a good lawyer wouldn't have too much trouble putting together an argument to the contrary.

Similarly, an agreement was reached that there is nothing in the 1972 collision regulations that prevent the operation of fully autonomous, uncrewed vessels. Questions as to whether an algorithm can exhibit 'good seamanship', or if an individual in charge of an autonomous system can be held liable for a collision, remain unanswered.

There is a generally accepted principle in international law that treaties should be interpreted in good faith and that the intentions of the legislators should be taken into account. If this principle is abandoned in favour of coming to the most convenient interpretation, then it will inevitably be seafarers that bear the brunt. That is why Nautilus will continue to fight to ensure that the needs of seafarers are given due consideration and that any regulatory regime is fit for purpose.


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