Cost, productivity benefits of automated shipping and ports questioned

While Wartsila may have carried out a successful test of an autonomous offshore vessel last month those representing the workers in the transport industry question both the productivity and economics of automated ships and ports.

Speaking to Seatrade Maritime News after the opening the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) office in Singapore on Wednesday, president Paddy Crumlin and general secretary Stephen Cotton described the push for automation as a “marketing rush” where the consequences had not been thought through.

With automation in shipping and ports touted as safer, cost effective and more efficient, the ITF raised issues with risk, regulation, and whether there were really cost savings or productivity benefits.

“Automation shouldn’t be a replacement for good industrial relations. It shouldn’t be used as a form of union busting which it sometimes is. It is also beiung used as a marketing tool that hasn’t got a practical or productive consequence,” said Crumlin.

“We’re saying and increasingly to institutional investors in automation there needs to be a properly described case for productivity, not just as basis for removing trade unions or selling a product.”


Looking at autonomous or automated shipping Cotton suggested that one of the leading proponents of the development, Rolls Royce, was marketing a product but didn’t have a plan for its implementation.

Cotton said he believed autonomous shipping was a long way off. “If you look at the cost, wage cost is a very small part of operating a ship. But in reality the investment to build full autonomous ships is an issue I struggle to see quite how it will implement itself,” he explained.

“Maybe coastal trade, maybe the river trade, but can you really see the British Channel or the Singapore Strait controlled by some master chess player in a darkened room? It's a very long way off.”

Crumlin noted that there had been talk of reducing crews from the current levels of 15 – 20 seafarers to say five or six for a number of years but this had not been achieved.

While he accepted the technology existed the risks and governance related to autonomous shipping remained ill-defined. “No one’s going to rush in without all those risks being defined and a governance framework so they know who they are going to sue if it does go wrong,” he stated. “I don’t think there’s been a balanced conversation because it's the big new, bright thing.”

Looking at the landside where there have been greater developments in the automation of ports Crumlin questioned the real economic and productivity gains that were made.

“An automated terminal that operates a crane rate five or six containers less (moves per hour)….doesn't stack up from an institutional shareholders point of view, from a governmentt point of view, and an industrial relations point of view. The devil’s in the detail.”

Crumlin also made a point that would appear to be directed at governments and politicians – simply that - “Robots don’t pay tax”. “Taxation is an issue, in a social context if you do away with workers and you haven’t got a plan for developing new industries.”

Originally published 7 September via Seatrade Maritime News