Navigating the Future: Bridge Officers’ Skepticism Towards Autonomous Ships

The maritime profession, one of the world’s oldest, is on the verge of a major transformation driven by new technologies. However, a recent study reveals that bridge officers, who hold the ultimate responsibility on Norwegian vessels, have strong doubts about the safety of increased automation and autonomous ships.

Bridge Officers’ Skepticism

Asbjørn Lein Aalberg, a PhD candidate at NTNU’s Department of Industrial Economics and Technology Management and SINTEF Digital, conducted a survey of over 8,000 Norwegian bridge officers. The study found that while bridge officers rely on existing automated systems like advanced autopilots, they are skeptical about the positive impact of increased automation and self-driving ships on safety.

“Bridge officers rely on automated systems that are already found on board, such as advanced autopilot systems. However, there is strong scepticism, almost mistrust, that increased automation and autonomous (i.e. self-driving) ships will contribute positively to safety,” says Aalberg.

Understanding the Reasons Behind the Skepticism

To ensure the safe operation of future autonomous vessels, Aalberg believes it is crucial to understand the reasons behind the seafarers’ skepticism. “If we are to get there, it is important to understand what is behind the seafarers’ scepticism. We need their engagement, willingness and interest to ensure that the technology and systems being developed are fit for purpose,” he explains.

The survey, which included 1,789 Norwegian and 227 international bridge officers of all ages and experience levels, found that those who take the greatest pride in their profession are the most skeptical about technological developments. Aalberg notes that this pride may lead to additional mistrust when faced with radical changes.

The Importance of Professional Discretion

Aalberg also interviewed 31 Norwegian seafarers on board highly automated Norwegian passenger ferries about their confidence in advanced automated systems. The study revealed that bridge officers trust autopilots and similar systems because they have control and can choose to turn them on or off as they see fit.

The interviewees expressed concern about machines’ ability to demonstrate true ‘seamanship’ and exercise professional discretion in traffic. They also doubted the machines’ capability to handle emergency situations effectively, believing that people are best suited to make decisions in complicated situations.

Distinguishing Between Automation and Autonomy

The studies show that bridge officers make a clear distinction between automation and autonomy. Automation involves machines taking over some of their tasks, while autonomy, in its ultimate form, means unmanned ships.

Aalberg provides a nuanced perspective on the development, stating that many researchers argue that humans will play a crucial role in human-automation collaboration, even on autonomous ships.

Involving Seafarers in the Development Process

Aalberg hopes that the authorities can use the research results in dialogue with shipping companies and technology providers. He emphasizes the importance of including seafarers when developing new concepts and technological solutions.

“They have to make, and talk about, innovations in such a way that it sparks interest instead of scepticism,” he says.

Aalberg also suggests that projects involving technological development should openly disseminate real results from testing to provide a nuanced perspective of what seafarers perceive as being overly idealized. He notes that seafarers gain trust in advanced technology by trying it themselves and seeing if the automation makes the same choices they would have made.

As the maritime industry moves towards increased automation and autonomous ships, it is essential to address the concerns and skepticism of bridge officers who have the ultimate responsibility on board. By understanding their perspectives and involving them in the development process, the industry can work towards ensuring that new technologies enhance safety and gain the trust of seafarers.

The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Want more? Sign up for our daily email.