The forgotten aspects of autonomous vessels
When we discuss autonomous vessels, we tend to focus on the digital/electric aspects alone. This is natural since there are obvious technological challenges there. However, what is never discussed, as far as I can read, is the mechanical aspects of autonomous vessels. To explain that, consider the figure below from the MUNIN project.
Modes of digital assistance. (Image courtesy of the MUNIN project.).
We see that today everything requires manning in one way or the other. Remote ships are technically speaking no problem since it is basically a human onshore operating it, and there are an increasing number of ships with this kind of solution concerning health monitoring and intervention. The challenges start when we go automatic or autonomous. There are prototypes today capable of this, but nothing of commercial usage and with any significant range or capabilities. This will come, however.
Since an autonomous vessel is a vessel that runs on automatic mode (a drone essentially) most of the time and human intervention is done via satellite on a when-necessary basis, then the mechanical components must run without any issues all the time. This is not the case today, however. Most engines, for example, require daily attention. This can be done via satellite or Artificial Intelligence (AI), of course. However, more difficult is the smaller service intervals of, say, every 300 running hours…
Now, if we look at a vessel crossing the Atlantic it becomes much more challenging. Typical transit time from Rotterdam to New York is today 12 days. One of the promises with autonomous vessels, however, is to lower the speed 30% and save 50% on fuel. When the crew is not there anymore, this becomes an attractive proposition because the crew constitutes 25% of today’s operating expenses. This means that a reduction of 50% compared to today’s operating expenses is possible. This will increase the transit time to about 17 days or about 400 running hours. To keep a cost-effective operation, the ship owners may have a hub of personnel at strategic locations only so going back and forth may be desirable, perhaps. Thus, about 850 running hours including an effective offloading/on-loading in New York.
Crossing the Pacific from Yokohama to Los Angeles, is more demanding. Today, it takes 14 days and with the same kind of logics as before this soon translates into 1,000 running hours completely unassisted. However, Shanghai – Rotterdam is much longer with 36 days transit time today. This would require unassisted operations for 51 days or close to 2,500 running hours.
So what? My point is that unless the reliability and robustness of the mechanical components are significantly improved, the idea of autonomous vessels will be limited to relatively short sea-routes; short-sea shipping, ferries, harbor tugs and the like. Yet, the great potential lies in the big vessels that propel the global trade. This means that the true competitiveness will ironically lie in the old technologies. The manufacturers that can bring their engines and other major components up to the level of the unassisted running hours indicated above will have significant competitive edge concerning autonomous vessels.
This leads to the next point. These large vessels are using HFO today and huge, two-stroke engines. These engines have far too short maintenance intervals for the kind of operation mentioned above. This may open for reduction of vessel sizes to allow mid-speed engines to propel these vessels. The economics of the large vessels today is driven by volume due to the cost structure in general, but smaller vessels where 50% of operating expenses are eliminated could compete very well. This will also make harbor management easier as well as eliminate the pollution of the large vessels. All of this, hinges on the mechanical components in the vessels being able to reliably work unassisted for hundreds of running hours.
Hence, to view the autonomous vessels as a digital/electric issue is too short-sighted. Due to the network effects, prevalent in digital economies where data is input and output, it is likely that the digital part of the autonomous vessels will become rapidly commoditized by major players like Google and Amazon once this industry starts to pick up. They will provide the autonomous, digital platform upon which third-parties can integrate their equipment – similar to a smart phone. However, they will not be capable of dealing with the mechanical issues… The most critical aspects will be major, mechanical components with many running hours (like engines) but also building the ships with very strict requirements concerning systems integration and quality, in general.
The marine players that will be in this for the long haul are therefore those that can become exceptionally good at what they are good at today, and the rest will be delegated to conventional, manned shipping.