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Autonomous vessels: will the Hague-Visby Rules be practicable as a liability regime as between sea-carriers and cargo interests?

Lloyd's Maritime and Commercial Law Quarterly

Autonomous vessels: will the Hague-Visby Rules be practicable as a liability regime as between sea-carriers and cargo interests?

Sir Richard Aikens *

Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships (“MASS”) for the carriage of goods by sea will soon be common. The need to analyse how liability for loss and damage to cargoes carried in MASS is to be dealt with is urgent. The only widely accepted and used international Convention on responsibilities and liabilities for cargo loss and damages when carried under bills of lading is contained in the Hague-Visby Rules. This article examines, by reference to two recent UK Supreme Court decisions, whether, and if so how, the Hague-Visby Rules would work in the case of cargo carried by MASS.
Maritime Autonomous Surface Ships, or “MASS”, for the carriage of goods by sea, are now a reality. The world’s first electric and self-propelled container ship, Yara Birkeland, departed for her maiden voyage in the Oslo fjord on 19 November 2021. She is 80 metres in length and 15 metres in breadth and has a deadweight tonnage of 3,120. She can transport 190 standard containers. The electric engines are powered by lithium-ion batteries which give her a service speed of 6 knots and a maximum speed of 13 knots. She will undergo two years of trials to test the technology that makes her self-propelled, with the aim of her being eventually certified as an autonomous, all-electric container ship. She will transport mineral fertiliser between two Norwegian ports and will have zero emissions. There are several sub-sets of MASS and, as I understand it, Yara Birkeland is a vessel that is remotely controlled from shore-based systems, as opposed to a vessel that is fully autonomous and so makes all decisions relating to a voyage without any human intervention.
The evolution of MASS has been and will be rapid. However, the need to think about the issue of the respective responsibilities and liabilities of carriers and cargo interests in an age of MASS is increasingly urgent, for several reasons. First, MASS is coming and everyone in the shipping industry expects that there will be a large expansion in the MASS fleet by 2030 and beyond. Secondly, it takes a very long time these days to draft, adopt, ratify and put into force any new international Convention. In the case of


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