How revolutionary new technologies, automating and simplifying the shipping process, will fit into shipping's ancient legal and regulatory regime

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: School of Law


Unmanned shipping taking over. The UK is an industry first mover and looks to benefit most from this new technology. Owing to the promise of radically increasing productivity and profitability in the UK merchant shipping market, it is surprising there is a scarcity of academic literature exploring relevant regulatory and legal issues. Therefore, this research project will aim to provide clarity by detailing the issues unmanned shipping will likely face and then seek to identify and provide technological solutions to these issues.

Research questions
Firstly, whether unmanned ships will comply with merchant shipping law, in terms of domestic "registrability" and compliance with domestic and international safety standards? Secondly, what impact will unmanned ships have on commercial parties' liabilities? Inter alia, will unmanned ships be considered "seaworthy" and will AI-led "deviations" be considered voluntary and thereby displace the carriage contract's terms? Thirdly, what technologies are being developed or should be developed to increase unmanned ships' potential to be compatible with merchant shipping and commercial law?

There is significant scope for creativity and to augment and improve upon pre-existing research. For example, Karlis is not a legal researcher and makes a couple legal mistakes. The 1997 Regulations have actually been repealed; he cites no authority for his seaworthiness argument. Veal & Tsimplis are undoubtedly legal researchers, but their work was limited to an article. There are cases which suggest a manned element requirement under UK law.

Furthermore, the authors argue STCW applies only to "seafarers" but the 1997 Regulations impose certain STCW rules onto a wider category of "sea-going ships". The authors also do not refer to Merchant Shipping Notices. It is submitted, therefore, that legally specialised and more in-depth research could significantly add to the current literature.

Lastly, there is a novel AI argument to be made. Karlis suggests AI with an "underlying defect" would render ships unseaworthy. However, if AI is considered "human-like" (i.e. strong AI) and possess human-like fallibility, then such defects might be considered under masters case-law rather than "equipment" case-law. Rio Tinto v Seed Shipping provides strong authority for supposing unhealthy (or fallible) "masters" do not necessarily render the ship unseaworthy.

The project will include a techno-legal approach. Firstly it will consult scientific literature on unmanned ships and AI developments in order to conclude the likely "specifications" to which the law will apply. Secondly it will use a black-letter comparative approach to determine, or rather predict, the law-currently there is no direct case-law on unmanned ships. The methodology will be radical owing to its dually predictive and abstract elements, which will have great practical significance.


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