Is Automation a Panacea or Is It Doomed to Fail in the Current Approach?

By John A. C. Cartner

Is Automation a Panacea or Is It Doomed to Fail in the Current Approach?

It seems as if the pace of automation is increasing in the industry. For example, the notion of an autonomous ship has yet again reared its head. ECDIS is now becoming institutionalized. Is this going to cause problems in and of itself – the pace of automation? I believe it will and it is causing problems now.



The age-old way of shipping has been cost containment. After all a ton mile is a ton mile no matter what carries it. In an industry where there are few distinguishing features which may be exploited one may expect fierce cost competition and very little price elasticity. That is what we have in many trades such as in the container trades. Hence, automation is seen as a way to reduce costs by engineering out the people who operate ships which in some perceptions are the expensive causes of many costs and more costly problems. This is flawed thinking on many counts.

I mean by that simply that shipping is a complex exercise of the interactive forces of engineering, environment, fundamental physical laws, geography, distance, capital, operating revenues and costs and profits, time, regulation, safety of vessels and people and the environment, risk in each of these areas and other variables. On the one hand no one person has a complete and full understanding of the entire system to its smallest details. It is probably impossible to do so. On the other hand, most accidental happenings in the industry can usually be traced to small matters which inevitable lead to large consequences including ship loss, death, cargo loss and large money loss. There is a conundrum here which the automaters ignore.
Expanding this thought, it has been pointed out that several factors other than the automation designer’s lack of marine knowledge make automation far less attractive than it seems. One of the common comparisons is the success of automation in the aviation industry and in our business. If it can be done in flying why not here? There are many reasons, I believe, why it cannot. I have been an airplane pilot as well as a shipmaster. The implications of an aviation mistake cascading are immediate and usually fatal. The implications of most marine mistakes not being caught and cascading are slower and are frequently not fatal. Hence, the importation of aviation technology is not necessarily useful to us. Not only that, aviation technology is neither pilot-proof nor wholly reliable. Putting that aside, the technology has in some circumstances created safety implications in and of itself by putting the burden of diligence of oversight and excessive vigilance on pilots. We know from the scientific literature that it is humanly impossible to be vigilant for more than a short period. Hence all we are doing in aviation automation is shifting the kind of vigilance applied by a pilot from watching and adjusting the manual controls and instruments of an airplane to watching the automated equipment do its work. We have shifted the risk against human nature from hands-on operations to watching the paint dry. We then ask ourselves when the paint drying exercise has failed “How can we make the pilot watch the paint dry better by automating more?” That is short-sighted and not too bright.

This has direct application to us. The cognitive burdens of watching the paint dry in a large expanse of painted are – analogous to watching ECDIS and ACS and the internal automation indicators of a vessels underway -- are likely impossible even now for a mate on watch. For four or six hours it is impossible. What will happen? Accidents and the inevitable dumb question. This will lead to attempts to try to automate out over-reliance on the systems and the exercise will ultimately fail. We will try to train out over-reliance. I will fail because people are essentially lazy organisms who look for the easiest way to do things. However combined with failure of vigilance and laziness, automation lays a trap which likely cannot be avoided and cannot be designed out.

The opinions expressed by Dr. John A.C. Cartner in the ‘Conversations with Cartner’ Video Series and accompanying blogs are the opinions of Dr. Cartner and do not necessarily reflect the views of the staff and management of Maritime TV, or its parent network, TV Worldwide, Inc.

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John A. C. Cartner

John A. C. CartnerJohn A. C. Cartner

Dr. John A. C. Cartner practices maritime law domestically and internationally. He is designated Proctor in Admiralty by the Maritime Law Association of the United States and is member of other state maritime law associations.

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Maritime TV 'Conversations with Cartner'
A weekly discussion on maritime industry issues of the day with Shipmaster and Maritime Lawyer, Dr. John A.C. Cartner.


The opinions expressed by Dr. John A.C. Cartner in the ‘Conversations with Cartner’ Video Series and accompanying blogs are the opinions of Dr. Cartner and do not necessarily reflect the views of the staff and management of Maritime TV, or its parent network, TV Worldwide, Inc.

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