Autonomous advances will not be matched by legal change for a decade – Fichte

Insurers have been warned it will take at least a decade for maritime law to adapt in order to meet the changing risk and liability issues that come with autonomous vessels in the world’s seas.

Speaking at the IUMI conference in Edinburgh Jasmin Fichte, managing partner at Dubai based law firm Fichte & Co said the insurance industry would have to navigate the liability issues over the liability responsibilities for the vessel whilst maritime law was rewritten.

Fichte said the emergence of Maritime Autonomous Surface Vessels (MASS) had to be viewed as a positive as the vast majority of maritime incidents and accidents were based on human error.

Whilst there are already small brown water autonomous vessels operating in the US, Europe and the Far East it is the arrival of the larger blue water oceangoing vessels which is on the horizon, and the risks they will create.

“There will be those who have limited crew on board, those who will have no crew on board and will be operated remotely and also those which will be fully autonomous and will have no human interaction in a voyage,” she explained. “At present there are no international standards for the safe design, operation or maintenance of MASS vessels.

“The maritime industry says it is ready with the technology but why aren’t the laws? Smaller vessels are in operation, but it is only a matter of time before the larger vessels are tested.”

While the International Maritime Organisation has begun the formal scoping exercise, it will need to look at over 20 different conventions which will take a huge amount of time Fichte explained.

“History tells us that IMO and maritime laws have always followed an incident, but we have a need to regulate something no one understands as yet.

“There maybe guidelines in 2024, but if we are looking at a law it is set to be after 2028, and that is far too late. For underwriters how do you quote for something which is not regulated?”

Fichte said that already remote-control centres are appearing in ports around the world where humans will use a system and potentially a joystick to control the vessel remotely.

“The question everyone is asking is if there is an incident who is liable? Is it the guy with the joystick or the guy who wrote the code for the system? My view is it is the guy that writes the software.”

She added that new technology and new risks will require a totally different set of experts to support the insurance sector.

“Lawyers will need new skills. It is not a case of simply training crews, we will need to train everyone.  The new liability regime will require everyone to change.”

Fichte said that for insurers there is still a requirement for a ship to “be properly manned”.

“Insurers will need to decide who is the digital master of the vessel, the man with the joystick or the man behind the code.”

She concluded: “New insurance products and laws will be required to cover MASS vessels given the risks they pose.

“Over the next 10 years they may well be a discrepancy between the vessel development and the legal system catching up.”