The possible future of autonomous ferries
By Glen Krueger, A Vancouver Lawyer with Bernard LLP
Imagine you’re sitting in line at the Horseshoe Bay Terminal. The announcement for drivers to return to their vehicles has gone out. You wait for the line to move and then, all at once, all the vehicles in your line move in synch. You all have autonomous vehicles that the terminal has wirelessly connected to, moving them as a single unit. You don’t even have to turn the ignition. You board the vessel, which itself is autonomous and can measure to an inch how much space to put between cars, maximizing the number of vehicles per sailing. Think this future is that far off? You might be surprised.
In trials organized by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, a prototype of the world’s first autonomous ferry has been launched. Located in Trondheim, this ferry is shuttling pedestrians and their bikes across 320 feet which takes 60 seconds to cover. The ferry is fully autonomous, self-propelled and is fitted with sensors to avoid other river traffic. It operates largely like an elevator; passengers press a button to call the ferry and it then comes to pick them up. The trial is currently operating a half-scale ferry but a larger 12-person ferry will launch next year which is also emissions-free and will charge its batteries while docked. The designers’ biggest fears are not related to the operational abilities of the ferry but rather that it could be hacked.
In coming years, even more autonomous vessels are going to launch. In 2022, the YARA Birkeland will complete the transition from manned operation to fully autonomous operation. It will be the world’s first zero-emission, autonomous container feeder; it will remove more than 100 diesel truck journeys per day from the road. It will sail between three ports in southern Norway with the longest route being 30nm. The distance between Horseshoe Bay and Departure Bay is about 30nm.
The benefits are clear. BC Ferries runs numerous routes with little or no change in route so pre-programming is possible. Loading and unloading times could be dramatically improved and capacity would be increased per sailing. Reduced costs for fuel consumption and insurance (80 per cent of marine casualties are caused by human error) could result perhaps in even more sailings. This all comes at a time when the public is concerned about costs and wait times.
However, as is the case in this world in which technology is quickly outpacing the law, there would be clear legal difficulties. Without a change in regulation, autonomous vessels will still need to satisfy various Transport Canada regulatory requirements. For instance, the Domestic Ferries Security Regulation, SOR/2009-321 (the “DFSR”) was established in order to enhance the security of the Canadian ferry transportation system through the establishment of a framework for detecting security threats and taking preventative measures against security incidents.
The DFSR establishes three levels to MARSEC (Marine Security). Each level is designed to establish and communicate the pre-planned responses at various security levels. The three levels are:
MARSEC 1 — the level for which minimum security procedures are maintained as set out in the approved security plan;
MARSEC 2 — the level for which security procedures additional to those of MARSEC 1 are maintained for a limited period because of heightened risk of a security threat or security incident; and
MARSEC 3 — the level for which security procedures additional to those of MARSEC 1 and MARSEC 2 are maintained for a limited period when a security threat or security incident is probable or imminent, whether or not the specific threat is identified.
Each of these levels has aspects set out by the DFSR which likely require human involvement. MARSEC 1 requires that there be a plan for the searching of selected areas before passengers embark, securing all non-passenger areas and at least one of either conducting security patrols or using additional closed-circuit video cameras to monitor passenger areas, vehicles and baggage. At MARSEC 1, domestic ferry facilities are to have plans for methods to prevent unauthorized access to ferry facilities and restricted areas.
The requirements of the DFSR increase for MARSEC 2 and 3. At MARSEC 3, steps could include a full or partial search of a ferry or ferry facility, segregation of inbound and outbound cargo as well as ships’ stores, suspension of embarkation or disembarkation activities, evacuation of the ferry or moving of the ferry which may remove it from its usual route.
Another aspect of the DFSR which would cause difficulties with autonomous ferries is Section 54: the judgment of the master prevails. This section states that nothing in the DFSR permits any person to constrain the master of a ferry from making or executing a decision that, in the professional judgment of the master, is necessary to maintain the safety and security of the ferry. These decisions could be to deny access to persons and their cargo (subject to some restrictions) or to coordinate crew changes as well as access to the ferry by individuals such as representatives of welfare and labour organizations. Assumed in this authority is that there would be an actual master on board the ferry.
Regulatory navigation requirements would also play a role. For instance, the Navigation Safety Regulations, SOR/2005-134 set out specific requirements vis-a-vis visibility from the navigating bridge of a vessel. But autonomous vessels do not require visibility. In fact, a large amount of the fuel efficiency comes from the lack of a navigation bridge to begin with.
Another potential difficulty with an autonomous ferry is compliance with the Canadian Transportation Agency’s Code of Practice for Ferry Accessibility. This Code contains standards meant to enhance accessibility for individuals with disabilities and establishes what the Canadian Transportation Agency expects of ferry operators.
Per Section 5 of the Code, at a minimum, ferry operators must ensure that their employees and contractors are trained in accordance with the Personnel Training for the Assistance of Persons with Disabilities Regulation, SOR/94-42.
Autonomous ferries also raise questions about Canada’s compliance with its international obligations such as either the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1978 (STCW) or the Articles of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea, 1974 (SOLAS). The primary purpose of the STCW is to establish common international standards of training, certification and watchkeeping for seafarers. The SOLAS Convention sets minimum safety standards in the construction, equipment and operation of merchant ships including setting minimum manning levels.
Chapter V of the SOLAS Convention requires that vessels be sufficiently and efficiently manned for safety purposes. Section 207 of the Marine Personnel Regulations, SOR/2007-115 enacts this requirement for Canadian vessels and requires various roles be potentially fulfilled including master, chief mate, person in charge of machinery and sufficient numbers required to keep the deck watch, engineering watch and radio watch. What are sufficient numbers? Could the answer, if the vessel is autonomous, be zero?
There is an obligation for a vessel’s master to offer assistance to those in distress and control the use of lifesaving signals. These obligations are impacted by the Navigation Safety Regulations, SOR/2005-134 and the IMO MSC/Circ. 1079 Guidelines on Preparing Plans for Cooperation between Search and Rescue Services and Passenger Ships. Would an onboard AI know whether to offer assistance to a ship in distress and how to comply with the various logistical and legal requirements? How can we ensure compliance with these obligations?
This article is just a sample of the legal questions surrounding autonomous ferries. Others could include compliance with provincial occupational health and safety regulations, insurance questions and employment law issues. And of course there are those pesky hackers. However, in this day and age where technology is more and more outstripping our ability to regulate, we need to start thinking carefully about how, in the long term, we will manage changes such as autonomous ferries.
Glen Krueger is a maritime lawyer with Bernard LLP and can be reached at email@example.com.