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Researchers doubtful about autonomous road ferries

09 May 2023

Next summer, Färjerederiet will put two ultra-modern electric road ferries into traffic, equipped with a smart system that will eventually make them autonomous. According to a new research report from the Swedish Transport Administration and VTI, it will fundamentally change Färjerederiets organization and skills needs.

Imagine a yellow car ferry that is controlled with the help of AI and where the human "commander" is sent to shore to solely monitor a system that includes several ferries. Does that sound possible? Yes, says the supplier of the two electric-powered smart road ferries that will be delivered to Färjerederiet (who runs the Swedish road ferries) next year. The AI system needs a year to be trained by human commanders on the routes concerned - then it's ready to "taking over the helm". The researchers are more skeptical.

“We do research on other types of traffic at VTI as well, and here you can draw a parallel to the automotive industry and the development of self-driving cars. Five years ago, it was foreseen that they would be a natural feature on the roads today, but the technology is still so far away that they did not even dare to test them on public roads”, says Joakim Dahlman, researcher at VTI and one of the authors behind the report Operation and operation of smart ships, which looked more closely at the effects of the purchase of the two ferries on the operation and organization of the ferry company.

Before AI can take over the helm at sea, many questions remain to be solved, the researchers points out. First, new regulations are needed, both national and international, and it will likely take a long time before it will be allowed for commanders to remotely control ships from shore. Second, the challenges surrounding security and performance are many. What happens, for example, in the event of emergencies and disruptions? Who is in charge if the ferry catches fire? What happens if someone falls overboard?

“And how do we know that the AI learns the right things from the commanders? Because what is it that they are really supposed to learn? Should one strictly follow COLREG (the international rules of the sea ed. Note), good seamanship or a combination? And how does the AI act if they encounter boats that make mistakes? When you drive on the road, you know that the people in the cars you meet have a driver's license. It's not like that at sea”, says Johanna Larsson at VTI, who also co-authored the report.

Currently, there are hardly any autonomous ferries in traffic in the rest of the world, and Färjerederiet will be one of the first to put one into operation. According to the report, this will fundamentally change the company's organization and skills needs.

“This will be an incredibly big step for Färjerederiet compared to what it would be for other larger shipping companies. Even the newest road ferries have rather outdated technology and the captains are on average of an older generation. The shipping company faces a challenge to bring the entire organization on this trip”, says Joakim Dahlman.

The two ferries ordered will operate the Ljusteröleden and the Vaxholmsleden – two of the country's most difficult and busiest routes. "If the AI system can handle these, it can handle everything", seems to be the motto according to the researchers.

“This requires a completely new type of commander, which may mean that Färjerederiet suddenly becomes a very attractive employer to which young sailors and operators apply. This in turn means, which I don't think the ferry company anticipated from the beginning, that this will be as much an HR issue as a technology issue”, says Johanna Larsson.

The idea is that the "commander" of the future operates on land, in a Remote Operation Center (ROC) and monitors several autonomous ferries at the same time. On board the ferries there is only one steward without nautical or technical competence who takes care of passengers and handles loading and unloading. In this way, the operation becomes cheaper because neither the commander nor the boatmen are needed on board anymore.

“This will hardly become a reality in the near future. And until then it will of course be much more expensive because both the commander and the boatman will remain on board at the same time as another staff member will be placed as an operator on land.”

New modern electrified ferries are of course needed, but it is not as obvious that there is a need for autonomous ferries, say the researchers. On the other hand, it is in a way reasonable that the Färjerederiet is involved in driving that development.

“The state is one of the few that can afford to do something like this. You can see it as a bit of a society building effort. Someone has to take the first step and test this. Many other shipping companies are very interested in how this will turn out”, says Johanna Larsson.

The report (in swedish)

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