One of the innovations that has the potential to revolutionise shipping is autonomous shipping. This means voyages where navigation and manoeuvring of the ship are entrusted to systems that automatically guide the vessel, or to operators located elsewhere than on the vessel’s bridge. Norwegian-developed Yara Birkeland can become the world's first electric and self-driving container ship when it is launched in 2020.

- Norway is a pioneer in autonomous shipping. Highly advanced and good collaboration exists between the industry and the authorities to put the technical and regulatory solutions in place. Internationally, the process will take longer time. To start with, we will therefore only see autonomous voyages with Norwegian ships in Norwegian waters,” says Pål Lieungh, a partner at the law firm Thommessen.

Who is responsible?

A key question is how autonomous shipping will fit with the existing regulations. One thing is whether the ship meets the technical and regulatory requirements established by governments and classification societies, to be allowed to sail at all. Another question is how the traditional liability rules for ship traffic should be applied to autonomous ships.

Both the liability rules for collisions between ships and other liability rules related to damage caused by ships, are based on the principle of fault; the decisive factor is often whether the ship is at fault, or, if applicable, which of two ships is most to blame.

- Particularly in the case of collisions, the assessment of fault often rests on whether the rules of the road at sea have been violated or not. In order to ensure the safety of autonomous shipping in congested waters, autonomous ships must also be expected to follow the rules of the road at sea. In other words, there are major technical and legal challenges related to ensuring that autonomous shipping can also be carried out safely for other ship traffic,” says Henrik Hagberg, a partner at Thommessen.

New environmental requirements

It is not only innovation and technical advances that are changing the maritime industry. New environmental requirements are also precipitating change. The UN’s International Maritime Organization, IMO, has decided that the maximum content of sulphur in marine bunkers should be cut from 3.5% to 0.5% starting 1 January 2020.

- For complying with the environmental requirements, shipowners can operate the vessels with low sulphur fuel oils, which at current prices will increase fuel expenditure by approximately 50%. As an alternative the ship can be retrofitted to operate on non-sulphur fuel oils. However, this requires a major conversion of the ship, while access to non-sulphur fuel oils may be limited at the same time. Several shipping companies have chosen to install an exhaust gas cleaning system, so-called “scrubbers”. This carries a one-time cost of approximately $3-10 million, in addition to having to take the ship out of operation for about one month for installation. Thommessen has assisted a number of shipowners in negotiating contracts for the purchase and installation of scrubbers, says Mads Haavardsholm, a partner at Thommessen.

There is no doubt that the shipping industry is moving at a rapid pace towards becoming both smarter and more sustainable. With its strong professional groups and high expertise in ship technology, computer technology, classification, insurance, financing and legal services, etc., the Norwegian maritime cluster has all the prerequisites for being a technological leader in the maritime industry in the years to come.