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Legal Implications of Autonomous Ships

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

An oil tanker, weighing half a million tons, is churning through San Francisco Bay without a crew. What could possibly go wrong?

This is more than a hypothetical question. It is the future. Robot-assisted boats are already coursing through the oceans, bays, and waterways around the world.

And with advances in artificial intelligence, the next big thing in the shipping industry will likely be autonomous ships. These office-building-sized tankers, filled with liquid fires-waiting-to-happen, will be creeping around the globe without a man on board to pilot them.

Feeling a little seasick?

Waves of the Future

Industry experts predict robotic ships will hit the commercial waters in three years. Five more years, and they will be totally crew-free.

In real time, most boaters already use robotics to operate their craft. Sailboats with auto-pilots launched decades before self-driving cars came along. Auto-pilots take over the helm for hours at a time, using a compass or GPS to self-correct course as the wind and waves act upon vessels.

Even before the smart sailboat, mariners circumnavigated the Earth using wind vanes. These mechanical steering devices, still in use today, allow solo seafarers to literally go to sleep as their boats sail virtually unmanned for thousands of miles.

In the meantime, the U.S. military has already christened a self-driving ship to hunt for submarines. So commercial ship builders, damn the torpedoes, are going full-steam ahead with their own autonomous vessels.

Maritime Law

Thank Poseidon, there are some special laws that govern the seas.

Autonomous ships will have to be tested somewhere, and so the first vessel will likely sail off the coastal waters of a "flag state." That's the mariner's term for a nation that can provide the legal basis for a ship's operation.

However, shipping regulations have not clearly defined whether autonomous ships will be permitted on the open seas, how they will be insured, and who will be liable in the event of an accident.

To be sure, product liability and negligence standards will apply in the case of accidents. Just imagine an oil tanker hits a rig offshore, sending people to their deaths and spewing out millions of barrels of oil across the ocean.

You saw Deepwater Horizon? Wait for the sequel.

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