Secretary-General, ministers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, 

 

It is a pleasure for me to welcome you to this virtual summit – it is exciting to talk about the real future of autonomous ships.

I would have liked to meet you all in Brussels for these discussions, but in a way the virtual format of this summit is fitting – the future of autonomous ships will certainly involve remote and digital services. 

These technologies will also help us step up resilience, allowing to continue operating strategic maritime transport services in any context – just as these technologies are allowing us to meet today.

Outside of the sector, it is the image of vessels criss-crossing our seas autonomously that captures imagination. It is a very exciting image, but the value of automation extends across the entire maritime value chain, from shipbuilding, through to the ships themselves, vessel traffic monitoring and control, and port interface and other logistics issues.

Our work in relation to these technologies focuses in three headline areas: safety, smart operations and sustainability. Or, if you want, our vision is one of – zero accidents, zero waste, zero pollution!

 

 

As of today, we have operational guidelines on trials for MASS – maritime autonomous surface ships – put together by the EU and EEA Member States. Congratulations to everyone who was involved! The guidelines complement the interim IMO guidelines, take a risk-based approach and, importantly, emphasise the continued role of States as flag States and coastal States in ensuring safety.

These guidelines not only show that the EU leads by example, but will ultimately help innovations make their way to the market. 

While we also continue to follow the IMO ‘regulatory scoping exercise’, we know that it will take time to update the IMO instruments. We need to work to a medium-term timescale for international rules and standards. In the meantime, there is also room for regional and synchronised national solutions.

 

I think we can safely say that the initial potential for autonomous, smart shipping is in short-sea or feeder services within and between EU and EEA Member States. On that basis, regional technical solutions would allow for a more tailored set of rules.

To be clear – I am certainly not suggesting any departure from the principle that shipping is international and requires international rules. Deep Sea MASS will certainly require such rules, which is why we are carefully following IMO’s work . But MASS within the EU maritime space can be different, may advance faster, and will require the legislative framework to foster its development. 

Creating a smart transport system also requires us to think differently – in terms of capacity allocation, traffic management, monitoring, communication and control.

 

For maritime, we are already quite advanced with the Union Maritime Information and Exchange System, but we need to think about how it will work for the future. How the innovations meet the real demands and needs of the passengers and shippers. 

These needs are likely to include greater multimodality. An autonomous vessel is unlikely to have much impact without smart fairways, ports and terminals. We need from cost-effective smart transhipment – to an autonomous inland waterway barge for onward transport, for example.

Shipping is the engine of globalisation and is strategic – we rely on it for European exports and imports, as well as for intra-EU trade. A thriving sector is a must for our future. I know that some of you are concerned by what our climate neutrality ambition implies for the sector in terms of costs, but let’s look also at the opportunities!

We want a resilient maritime sector– we have all seen the importance of resilience this year. Starting to -invest in alternative propulsion systems, for example, will help future-proof the sector, while contributing to the EU’s ambitious emissions targets. And if we combine this with smart technologies and opportunities offered by autonomous shipping, we will further increase safety, efficiency and reliability at the same time. 

The opportunities that I referred to are open to the entire maritime industry cluster, from ship-owners to manufacturers, shipyards, ports and others. Ourupcoming Strategy on Sustainable and Smart Mobility will outline our vision for the role maritime transport will have in our future mobility eco-system and how we will, together, advance in our green and digital transition. 

 

To come back to today’s main topic of discussion - what is the real future of autonomous ships? 

I know that full autonomy will not happen overnight. It will more likely develop incrementally, starting at different levels depending on the type of trade. We must expect to see 'conventional' vessels sailing alongside MASS for quite a long time.

We expect short-sea services and feeder traffic within and between the EU and EEAS Member States to come first. Fully autonomous deep-sea international shipping is a more distant prospect.

There are currently no full-scale trials taking place within the EU. Is this because our innovators are working step-by-step, learning by error? Or is it because the business case for MASS is not yet clear? Perhaps it’s a mixture of both – I would like to hear your views! 

What I do know now is the importance of working together and learning from tests and trials before going into commercial operations. MASS is different from conventional shipping in this sense; we cannot and should not work on the basis of accident-driven developments.

Meanwhile, we will continue to explore how MASS can help reduce pollution, and how digital solutions can help make maritime transport more integrated and smart.

 

Thank you to all Ministers, and other speakers contributing to today’s discussions. I have no doubt that today will generate interesting ideas for our policy orientation at international, regional and national level. I look forward to hearing them!