Can ‘machine-minder’ seafarers cope with emergencies?

When you read of a project that gives the impression that it was devised by the criminally insane, how can you retain courtesy and politeness in your response?

The UK Department for Transport, perhaps attempting to deflect attention from Brexit, or potholes, has suggested that there will soon be experiments on UK motorways in which three lorries will drive in convoy under the command of a single driver, hopefully in the cab of the leading tractor unit. The trio will be known as a “platoon” and it will be good for the environment. The cabs of the following two trucks, close up behind the leader and thus enjoying a “slipstream” effect, will be tenanted by drivers, who will react only in an emergency.

The scheme was not hailed with universal enthusiasm, expressions ranging from terror to disbelief in those members of the public who like to comment on such matters. It was pointed out, some may think rather obviously, that the chances of the non-drivers in the following trucks remaining awake, let alone engaged, about half an hour into the journey were probably less than zero. But the environmental gains would clearly counter all the adverse publicity caused by mass deaths in gigantic pile-ups, so that’s all right, then.

It may not happen, although technology in the industrialised countries seem to be going hell-for-leather down the driverless cars route, where many of the same arguments may be found. Such vehicles, we are confidently told, will be “safer”, although the veracity of such a claim will surely only be proved once these vehicles are let loose upon our roads. Here again, we are faced with the scenario of a person in one of these autonomous cars being faced with a sudden emergency and forced to put aside lunch or wake from a snooze, and instantaneously react. It’s all bonkers.

So correcting any misapprehensions that readers have inadvertently strayed into a motoring magazine, just transfer some of these doubts into a marine context, where BIG DATA and wonderful connectivity are to make it easier to manage ship systems more effectively from ashore. While nobody would deny that remote condition-based monitoring would be far superior to a regime where you have to open up machinery to see if it is worn, is this not a further step down the road of “disempowering” ship staff and making their task seem less worthwhile?

It is suggested that such technology will enable the further reduction of seafaring officers and thus be a worthwhile cost saving, this being a powerful driver to anyone trying to operate ships cheaper. But if those who man ships afloat are to be no more than machine-minders, how are they ever to gain experience that might fit them for the inevitable emergencies that are bound to arise?

It might be asked (not that you will get a sensible answer) whether those engaged with the stampede for autonomy and remote management ever think about the possibility of unintended consequences. If everyone grows to depend upon executive decisions from ashore, will it be possible to transfer it back afloat in extremis?

There is a lot of concern about the “flatlining” of navigational errors, despite all the amazing equipment provided for today’s navigators on modern ships. Why do they still collide, or run ashore? The chief inspector of the UK Marine Accident Investigation Branch calls it “complacency” but a notion currently gaining traction is that when the traditional skills of navigation have been made redundant by wonderful equipment, the navigator becomes relegated to an onlooker and is less engaged than somebody more reliant on personal expertise. The mind wanders and distractions crowd in.

It’s an idea, certainly. But let us go back to the roads, where there has been concern expressed by motoring organisations that the “self-driving” assistance available on the current top of the range cars is lulling their drivers into a state of mental dis-engagement. Isn’t all this something we should investigate more thoroughly, before we drive further, in our various transport modes, down this road?

Posted 12 September 2017

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Michael Grey

Columnist and correspondent

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