Over the last few years, researchers have made a lot of progress with autonomous vehicles. They mainly focus on passenger cars, trying to eliminate accidents caused by human error, but the technology does not have to stay in that realm. Experts can also apply it to trains and 18-wheelers.
Some experts predict that this technology could make its way into the shipping industry. Companies are already working on autonomous cargo ships. Is that a realistic future for the industry? What risks does it carry? How could it transform maritime work?
Fully autonomous shipping could help companies save an incredible amount of money. With passenger cars and even commercial trucks, you're usually talking about taking one single driver off of the roads for each vehicle. With cargo ships that do not need crews, companies could save vastly more.
Of course, that does raise some questions. For instance, many autonomous cars getting tested right now still have controls for the driver, and someone sits behind the wheel the entire time. If something goes wrong, then manual control goes back to the driver.
Would cargo ships need the same backups? At sea, would companies still want to have a skeleton crew on the boat to protect their investment, just in case the computer system fails?
Autonomous ships still present risks. Computers are not perfect. Even if autonomous vessels are safer than a human crew, mistakes happen. We have seen this time and again when looking at autonomous cars.
For instance, a self-driving car struck and killed a woman in Arizona. It actually did "see" her before the impact, but it could not fully determine what it saw and did not stop in time. That landmark case helps to show some of the risks, although many other factors -- like the failure of the emergency driver to react -- played a role.
In the end, though, it shows that technology is not flawless. If applied to cargo ships, what sort of risks would arise? Would workers on the boat or at the shipyard suffer injuries? What if two vessels collided?
These are all important questions to ask as this technology develops. If you do get injured in a maritime incident, make sure you fully understand all of your legal rights to compensation.