Some 90% of world trade is transported by sea, which means the shipping costs of our coffee, televisions, and sneakers could decline if cargo was shipped in self-steering vessels. Without quarters for crew, more cargo could be loaded onto each ship. The artificial intelligence that would steer them would also likely make these freight ships safer. A report by insurer Allianz in 2012 said that 75%-96% of casualties at sea are due to human error.
But autonomous ships would also mean that shipping companies would need to ensure that their vessels are pirate-proof, or close to it. Currently, shipping companies and their crews have to resort to other low-tech measures to protect ships and themselves from pirates, including razor wire, electric fences, and water cannons. Without a crew, the autonomous ship, which is likely to be more expensive than a conventional vessel, along with its cargo, would become the bargaining chip.
Rolls-Royce, which in addition to airplane engines, makes ship engines and other ocean-bound equipment, is researching autonomous ships, the company expects autonomous ships to carry cargo in the open ocean in about 15 years. Rolls-Royce has one solution to the pirate problem that is decidedly low-tech: design a ship that’s harder to board. Ships could be designed with no ladders and have curved edges, according to the company.
Other low-tech piracy-prevention methods, such as barbed wire, have been in use for some years now, and piracy has been on the decline as a result of stepped-up patrols.