US Coast Guard to consider regulations on autonomous vessels

The country’s top maritime regulator is asking for the public’s view on the economic opportunities and the safety consequences of automated vessel technology as a precursor to potential regulations affecting commercial shipping in the United States.

In a Request for Information (RFI) scheduled to be published Tuesday, the U.S. Coast Guard has asked for responses to 16 questions on how automated commercial vessels and vessel technologies will affect U.S.-flagged commercial vessels as well as all shipping within U.S. port facilities. The Coast Guard also wants to evaluate potential barriers to developing autonomous vessels.

“Highly automated and autonomous vessels have the potential to improve safety in the maritime system, where it is estimated that 75% of accidents are caused, at least in part, by human error,” according to the RFI. It cited a 2019 report published by Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS), an insurance company, which found that those claims related to human error represented an equivalent of over $1.6 billion in losses.

“However, the introduction of automation and autonomous technology into commercial vessel operations brings a new set of challenges that need to be addressed, affecting design, operations, safety, security, training, and the workforce.”

The Coast Guard acknowledged that “automated and autonomous commercial vessels and vessel technologies” covers a wide range of maritime applications, and that the vessel functions it wants to assess include, but are not limited to, navigation operation, communication, machinery operation, cargo management, emergency response and maintenance.

Among the questions on which the Coast Guard is seeking comment and data:

  • What are the benefits (direct and indirect) and cost savings of automated and autonomous commercial vessels and vessel technologies, if any?
  • What potential economic factors (such as risks, costs or practical limitations) will a commercial vessel owner or operator have to consider before implementing automated and autonomous commercial vessels and vessel technologies?
  • What impacts to the maritime workforce may occur with the introduction of automated and autonomous commercial vessels and vessel technologies?

The Coast Guard says its RFI is aimed at complementing a joint White House – U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Ensuring American Leadership in Automated Vehicle Technologies: Automated Vehicles (AVs) 4.0, and notes that it plans to coordinate automation activity across agencies.

It follows a similar comment request issued last year by the U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd), an agency within DOT. (The Coast Guard is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.) MarAd’s RFI sought information on automation specifically within ports and their immediate surroundings. That information request generated comments from ports and port labor.

“Widespread deployment of autonomous/automated systems could have profound impacts on supply chains and it is an issue replete with speculation,” Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Eugene Seroka commented in response to the MarAd RFI. “It is in the national interest to systematically study and gather facts about the impact that technology introduction could have on freight system competitiveness and performance, existing business models, and incumbent workers.”

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