Can existing maritime law still be applied, in principle? What existing rules will require amendment or expansion and what new rules might have to be developed?
Maritime law is a distinct body of both domestic law, governing maritime activities and private international law governing the relationships between companies that operate ships on the oceans of the world and the tidal waters of rivers.
It deals with all matters, including marine commerce, international trade, shipping, marine navigation and the transportation of passengers and goods by sea. Maritime law also covers many commercial activities, which although land based, are maritime in character.
How will current international regulations deal with unmanned ships
How will current international regulations deal with unmanned ships, including the changes required to conventions such as SOLAS, MARPOL, STCW and COLREGS? What is the potential impact of autonomous ships and the carriers' duties to cargo, under the carriage of goods regulations, such as The Hague-Visby or the new Rotterdam Rules? Will autonomous ships have an impact on the carriers' right to limit their liability? Threats, such as cyber piracy, will spur whether further regulations are required.
As for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), it is quite clear that an autonomous ship will have to fly the flag of a state. But is the autonomous ship, with no master or crew on board, still a ship?
Most commentators accept that, for the purposes of the law of the sea, unmanned vessels must be regarded as ships. Other national laws simply define the master as any person to whom the authority of the ship is transferred or as the person who effectively exercises that authority.
It can, however, be concluded, with a considerable degree of certainty, that unmanned ships would be covered by the great majority of the existing regulatory definitions, conventions and national laws.
The duty of the carrier
The duty of the carrier to apply due diligence in making the ship seaworthy, which is a fundamental element of The Hague-Visby Rules and the Rotterdam Rules, will, in the light of the available case law about the general state of the ship, imply that the guiding IT mechanism and the shore-based vessel controller must function satisfactorily.
Collision law also appears to be able to stand up well against the arrival of autonomous ships. The 1910 Collision Convention governs the liability for collisions on the basis of the errors of ships and not the errors of the master and the other crew members (even though these are, of course, the cause of the collision). Should the collision be caused by the error of a shore-based vessel controller nothing will change regarding liability.
As for contracts of affreightment (usually a charter party), which determines how the ship is operated, there is nothing to stop the various types of charter parties continuing to play a role. The fact that ships will, in the future, perform their tasks without anybody on board does not appear to have an essential impact on these contracts. Some amendments need to be done, especially regarding competences, recruitment and the functioning of the master.
As for the rules of the special conventions relating to pollution damage, they appear to remain entirely unaffected.
To the extent that the unmanned ship is operated or controlled from the shore, the question arises whether or not the shorebased vessel controller can, under the current state of maritime law, be regarded as the master?
The shore-based vessel controller, sitting at his control desk, will have the responsibility of handling transports carrying valuable cargo. Just like the master, the shore-based vessel controller must have certain qualities, such as good judgement, the ability to communicate well, a cool head in emergencies. The shore-based vessel controller will have the duty to maintain a proper look-out and to proceed at a safe speed.
Relatively little will have to change?
All things considered, it appears that, with regard to the liability of the ship owner, relatively little will have to change. But, the introduction of fundamentally new liability rules may become the subject of political discussions. Would it be preferable to have liability based on strict liability for ships controlled by artificial intelligence?
Maritime law, with its long history, appears, on first examination, to be relatively well armed for this technological innovation and the necessary and undoubtedly extensive adaptations of existing public and private maritime law will be unlikely to bring about a revolution.
Maritime law will enter a new phase of development; but, it will certainly not die out.