BIMCO has announced that it has begun the process of drafting the first standard contract for autonomous ship operations, expected to be published in 2021.
The international shipping association is adapting the currently used SHIPMAN 2009 agreement for use with autonomous ships, adding autonomous ship-related services and building in provisions for the operation and manning of remote control centres.
Many of the provisions of the new standard contract, dubbed AUTOSHIPMAN, are necessarily based on assumptions and expectations, though BIMCO has enlisted the help of ship management firms Wilhelmsen, Anglo Eastern and NYK LNG Shipmanagement, as well as insurance experts ITIC and Gard and law firm HFW, in drafting the changes to existing wording.
While it is expected to initially be published in 2021, the new standard contract is likely to be subject to ongoing adjustments as the number of actual autonomous ships in operation begins to increase over time and greater insight into their impact is gathered.
“The digitalisation of the shipping industry manifests itself in many ways from port and ship optimisation to electronic bills of lading. But the issue that often seems to generate the greatest debate is the development and operation of autonomous ships,” BIMCO says.
“For autonomous ships to operate within the industry’s existing commercial framework we will need standard contracts. These will not be charter parties, at least not to begin with, because autonomous ships are being built to serve on dedicated trades for their entire working life.”
“The companies ordering the first generation of autonomous ships are in most cases not ‘maritime’ companies but instead users of shipping transportation services. We expect to see the first autonomous ships being operated by third party ship managers. They may act not only as technical managers for the ship but also provide the remote control centre and the personnel to operate the ship either ashore or on board.”
BIMCO notes that, based on its current forecasts, the first generation of cargo-carrying autonomous ships will be operating within the territorial waters of some countries by late next year. Those ships will most likely have a crew on board initially from launch but could quickly transition to being operated from a remote control centre. It is accepted that fully autonomous ships operating completely independently of even a remote control centre may yet be many years away.