"Next year, the first, smaller fully electric and fully autonomous container vessel is expected to operate along the coast of Norway. This will be a truly important landmark on the route to autonomous shipping," she said.

Firstly, Mrs Bulc situated autonomous ships into the wider context of the transformation of the transport system, noting that a fully integrated transport system highly automated will be safer and more efficient.

"Users, the infrastructure and the cargo will be connected to each other. Data will allow us to manage capacity better, be it a road, a container or a parking lot."

Further, she suggested a model with 5 layers, where officials could cooperate on, so that autonomous vessels could fit into the overall transport system. These are infrastructure, data, applications, services and the network layer.

The shift to autonomy and digitalisation in shipping is only beginning, she explained, and we must respond to four essential challenges for autonomous shipping to become a reality:

  • Taking workers on board : Mrs Bulc said that she does not foresee job losses, but job changes. The transition will require new, innovative skills, making the sector more attractive for the younger generation. 
  • Cyber-security : Cyber-security is progressing, she pointed out, but not as advanced as in aviation. Work is happening mainly at international level and with IMO and the shipping industry. 20% of shipping companies admitted having suffered cyber-security incidents/attacks.
  • Research and Innovation : EU marine industry is well-advanced in developing systems to make ships more and more autonomous, but competition is fierce, she said. The Chinese government has set the target to dominate the marine industry market by 2025.
  • New business models : Mrs Bulc suggested that the industry will have to think about how to regulate new ownership structures, where sharing of resources amongst operators becomes more and more common.

"We are still at the early stages, but planning now for the future is vital. It is important we have as many stakeholders on board as possible, so that we can learn, grow and develop in this new digital era, so that European companies can be ahead of the global curve and lead the world in developed and deploying fully connected and autonomous transport systems," she concluded.