COLUMN | Sailing towards the self-wrecking ship [Grey Power]

Photo: SK Telecom
Photo: SK Telecom

As we hurtle towards ever-greater levels of autonomy, it was predictable to read about proposed UK regulations for the self-driving car, which will enable the person in charge of the vehicle (who can hardly be termed the "driver") to look at films or TV, while the car rushes onwards. It might just conceivably keep them awake, although it is doubtful that they will be sufficiently stimulated to intervene, should there be some emergency requiring instant action. Indeed, a couple years of this sort of driving and any skills they might have enjoyed in the pre-autonomy age will have probably eroded.

Almost on cue that very day, I had received my copy of the excellent Marine Accident Investigation Branch Safety Digest, which contains lessons from marine accident reports. Its presentation has been "refreshed", and very attractive a publication it is. In his introduction to the digest, the Chief Inspector of Marine Accidents Andrew Moll, who confesses that he began bridge watchkeeping in the pre-digital age, writes about the constant stimulation of a busy coastal bridge watch, with plenty to occupy the mind of the OOW. He compares this to the modern bridge, with so many of the tasks being done automatically by all the clever equipment, although the OOW still has to somehow remain alert for a four- to six-hour spell.

"These developers never seem to consider that their inventions may de-skill or demotivate those who have to use the stuff."

From the incidents that his teams investigate, Mr Moll cites the frequency of these accidents in which the watchkeeper, in the absence of any other stimulation, has been maintaining the alert level by focusing on a personal "device". And it is happening all over the world, with people who have become disengaged and distracted while their ships stand into danger. It seems a very good indicator of future carnage on the roads once the self-driving cars become common. The Chief Inspector suggests that the role of the human in the digital workplace, "needs a serious rethink; if we don't, it is us that will be asleep at the wheel".

There is nothing new about this as clever equipment developers have been beguiling ship operators for decades with their amazing new products, although they never seem to consider that their inventions may de-skill, or demotivate those who have to use the stuff. Perhaps they think this is what the owners want – to enable even the least skilled navigator to behave like Vasco de Gama. I can remember suggesting that putting watch alarms on the bridge to keep the watchkeeper vaguely awake was pretty dehumanising and one move short of giving them electric shocks, but it is all part of the life that is on offer afloat these days.

"The promoters of the technology invariably live in a perfect world of unreality, where voyages progress smoothly and nothing ever goes wrong."

You can't put the genie back in the bottle, but with scarcely a week going by without some progress towards the "autonomous ship" being triumphantly advertised, I would suggest that Andrew Moll's serious rethink is actually quite urgent.

I was reading about some agency in the Netherlands that is advertising a system where a "captain", snug ashore, will be able to simultaneously control three ships. They will have a few lonely folk left aboard, who will be able to intervene should there be some emergency. Once again, quite how the wretched seafarers will be sufficiently alert to leap to the controls, or drop the anchor, is rather smoothed over in the enthusiastic blurbs. Maybe they will be wired up and given a quick jolt of electricity, if the computer detects that they have drifted off into a catatonic trance, are engaged with their personal devices, or, indeed, are sound asleep.

Amid all this digital progress, the promoters invariably live in a perfect world of unreality, where voyages progress smoothly and nothing ever goes wrong. I am no engineer, but I have listened to and read the words of experienced marine engineers who know better than me that things break, or fuse, or get gunged up with oil, grease, or salt and require human beings to fix them – quite often.

In this Safety Digest, there is a rather graphic photograph showing a fuel filter aboard a ship burning bio-diesel (Fatty Acid Methyl Ester) that has completely bunged up solid with the dreaded "diesel bug". I just vaguely wondered, in our terribly green future, how this is going to be cleared aboard a ship with nobody aboard.

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