Though automation does not look set to hit shipping hard in the near future, it raises questions for the maritime industry, finds a new WMU–ITF report
Many nations are yet to develop long-term plans for automation in the maritime industry: that’s one finding of a new report from the World Maritime University (WMU) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), Transport 2040: Automation, Technology, Employment – The Future of Work, that explores how automation will impact the future of work in transport.
The publication, described by the WMU as the first ever assessment of the topic, looks into how the global transport sector will change thanks to automation and advanced technologies. It predicts and analyses developments and trends in the major transport sectors to 2040, with an emphasis on the implications for jobs and employment for those working in transport. Informing the report is research from an interdisciplinary team with contributions from industry, academia and regulatory organisations during an 18-month period.
“Transport workers of today and tomorrow must be equipped with the required knowledge, skills and expertise for the jobs of tomorrow,” ITF general secretary Stephen Cotton says in the report. “The ITF–WMU study provides the information needed to support these aims.”
The report has four detailed key findings — and they suggest that the widespread advent of automation and other technologies within transport will not necessarily be a rapid one. The first conclusion is that although demographic trends, economic advantages and safety factors are automation catalysts, in many world transport areas the pace of automation’s introduction will be gradual. The second finding is that the rising trade volume will lead to increased transportation demand in the future, while regional transportation pattern alterations are anticipated.
The third key finding is that with the gradual pace in the introduction of technology and heightened trade volume, employment impacts are predictable. Low- and medium-skilled workers will be exposed to high automation risk, but the speed of introduction and diffusion of technologies will depend on differences in the development phase of nations and their comparative advantages. The fourth key finding is that automation and technology are influenced by local context. Assessing individual country profiles shows that nations and regions are not at the same readiness level to adopt automation and new technologies. The gap between developed and developing countries is highlighted by an analysis of relevant key factors.
While some countries … are trying to become leaders in the field of automation and technology in the maritime sector … other countries will not rapidly introduce the emerging new technology
According to the publication, several trends have been evolving across sectors around digitalisation, increased interconnectivity levels in production processes and advanced automation levels. Implementation of these technologies has already begun in many transport chain areas and will keep impacting upon all transport modes in the future. The report splits the trends into four categories, or “technology clusters”. The first category is automation of vehicles and infrastructure — maritime examples being cranes and automated vessels. The second is maintenance of vehicles and infrastructure (inspection drones fall under this cluster), while the third is user interfaces for customers and equipment operators. The fourth category is new services, like availability-oriented business models and cross-modal transport on demand.
“In maritime transport, the adoption of novel technologies tends to occur at a slower pace. Indications are that agreed international guidelines and regulations regarding autonomous transport are unlikely to be achieved within the next decade,” the report states, though it does claim that greatly automated transport solutions could be brought in at the regional level and governed by national legislation or bilateral deals among neighbouring countries — if there is social acceptance and a strong economic advantage is anticipated.
According to the publication, foresight simulations show that introducing highly-automated ships will lead to a reduction in global seafarer demand by 2040 as regards the baseline projection based on current technology. Bringing in greatly automated vessels can decrease world seafarer demand by 22 percent. Furthermore, the simulations show that such impacts are not compensated by the volume growth of seaborne trade expected for 2040, and they lower automation’s on-demand effect by 8 percentage points. It should be said that for the period being analysed, all the WMU and ITF simulations suggest an increase in the demand for seafarers from 2020 to 2040. However, in the report, a number of shipping jobs, such as ship captains and ship officers, are earmarked as job profiles in transport with the least automation potential.
The report also shows that in maritime, a “readiness gap” exists among developed and developing nations concerning automation and technology. It looked at 17 countries as regards readiness level for the introduction of emerging and new technologies: Australia, Brazil, China, Denmark, France, Ghana, Japan, Nigeria, Norway, Panama, Peru, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, South Africa, Sweden, the US and Turkey. When it concerns maritime specifically, the developing countries of Nigeria and Peru, for example, have a readiness score out of 10 of 3 and 3.8 respectively, while the developed country of France has a score of 6.4.
“While some countries in our study are trying to become leaders in the field of automation and technology in the maritime sector and their maximum efforts are focused on building the requisite foundation, other countries will not rapidly introduce the emerging new technology because their priorities are developmental, or focused on meeting the basic needs of their population: food, healthcare and education,” say the WMU and ITF.
Forecasts are offered in the report concerning maritime trade. The WMU and the ITF estimate that maritime transport will stay the dominant transport mode for world trade, with deep-sea cargo-carrying ships dominating transport services, and that long distance maritime transport will remain the leading mode in terms of the volume and scale of goods carried. Regarding volume per transport mode, seaborne trade has a relatively high growth rate, but the rate is going down.
World seaborne trade is anticipated to hit 60,000bn ton-miles by 2020, 74,000bn ton-miles by 2030 and around 84,500bn ton-miles by 2040. Annual growth for the short-term is projected at about 2.5%, with the long-term projection being 1.4%, and environmental policies and trade turbulence are named as the main uncertainties. However, the report forecasts that going from 2030 to 2040, maritime transport demand will likely grow at a less-rapid pace, with the growth chiefly in non-energy commodities — though slower growth in oil and related products following 2030 is expected to be offset by a more rapid growth in trade volumes of finished and semi-finished containerisable products.
According to the report, vessel traffic is set to witness a hike in the Indian and the Pacific oceans, and seaborne transport growth will likely be focused in the Asia and Indian Ocean regions, highlighting the importance of Asian trade. Due to the trade route alterations resulting in the growth of Asia’s stake in world trade, the transport services facilitating this trade will also go up in volume in these regions. Additionally, from 2015 to 2040, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations might expect to witness significant maritime transport increases, including 5.6% by inland waterways and 19.8% seaborne.
This timely report from the erstwhile WMU raises interesting questions about how well the shipping world is prepared for the advent of automation.