Ships without captains
The maritime services company DNV GL has published a study that hazards a forecast of the shipping industry in 2050. By that time, 35,000 teu ships could be plying the world’s seas, and liquefied natural gas could have established itself as a ship fuel. The maritime shipping industry experts can even envisage unmanned ships.
Imagine the year 2050: The (fictitious) containership Sea Giant sails into the Rotterdam maritime gateway, the vessel’s only European port of call. Immediately the hub’s fully-automated cargo-handling systems begin unloading the 35,000 teu on board. Goods hauled to Rotterdam from all over Europe are then loaded for transport to the Chinese maritime hub of Shenzhen.
At the same time, highly-specialised maintenance teams enter the colossal engine room to carry out repair work, which maintenance computers had already reported two days before the ship arrived in the port. Feeder ships, which are also larger than their predecessors from 2014, are already on their way to distribute the goods to other European ports. Some of these ships are completely automated, and make the journeys without any crew members on board.
The Sea Giant’s engines are not all the same. In addition to liquefied natural gas units (LNG) and diesel-oil systems fitted with highly-efficient exhaust scrubbing equipment, the first generation of fuel cells and electric drives has also emerged.
This scenario – or something like it – could represent the future of the maritime industry, if a study entitled «The Future of Shipping» becomes reality. The consultancy and ship and offshore classification society DNV GL published the study to mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of one of its constituent parts, namely Norway’s Det Norske Veritas (DNV). Last year it merged with its competitor Germanischer Lloyd (GL) to form the Norwegian-German giant DNV GL.
The two service providers contributed their combined expertise to the study, Tor E. Svenson, the chief executive officer of the company’s maritime division, told a group of journalists gathered in Hamburg recently. The study covers nearly every aspect of the shipping business – from ship design, to operation through to final recycling.
Less lives lost at sea
The experts at DNV GL see two initial forces guiding developments. The quantity of greenhouse gas emissions will drop by about 60% by 2050, and the number of lives lost at sea (currently 900 a year) will come down by 90%. Cargo costs will remain stable at the current level, or even come down.
The expectation of stable cargo cost is very surprising, but DNV GL sees a whole raft of ways to improve efficiency. In container shipping, the extent to which larger ships can generate better economies of scale to bring down costs per container slot have not been exhausted yet, according to the study.
On routes between international hubs ships with the capacity to carry between 30,000 and 35,000 teu could offer optimum cost structures. The study even sees capacity pooling as a realistic option in the future – a vision that was confirmed recently by the 2M vessel-sharing agreement announced by Maersk Line and MSC. The same goes for agreements between shipowners and charterers, which create incentives to invest in high-technology equipment designed to reduce operating costs.
Another approach to bringing down outlays is integrating units into a comprehensive supply chain management concept by making better use of on-board IT systems. To take this idea further, certain on-board tasks could be monitored or controlled from land. The authors of the study believe it may even be possible for these developments to culminate in fleets of ghost ships by 2050, which transport cargo across the seas without any crew (see also ITJ 9-10 / 2014, page 30).
Such technologies have already been successfully tested on submersibles, according to the study. It is not unlikely that proven technologies from that sphere could be transferred to the field of commercial shipping in the near future. The driving force behind these developments is the desire to relieve sailors of dangerous duties at sea. Today, the number of deaths among crews is ten times higher than the number of fatalities of industrial workers in the OECD states, according to DNV GL. On the other hand, another factor behind on-board automation is the necessity of reducing the operating costs of ships in the face of rising competitive pressures.
The benefits of fully-automated ships must be weighed against the drawbacks, however. Unmanned ships are easier for pirates and terrorists to commandeer, for example. That results in high risks, such as a possible capture of an oil tanker or a hacker attack on a ship’s systems.
The study anticipates a high level of investment in efficient cargo handling equipment – for example, cranes that are capable of loading or unloading several containers with just a single motion. DNV GL also looks at another aspect of the industry and sees continental and regional shipping as a growth market. Ports with large catchment areas, automated handling systems and efficient connections to the hinterland can shift more cargo.
Not every expert agrees with this hypothesis, however. Burkhard Lemper, a director and the head of the maritime economics and transport department at the Bremen-based German Institute of Shipping Economics and Logistics, says that long lead and follow-on processes on land would be likely to have negative effects on the cost of the overall transport.
LNG supply infrastructure
The experts are united, however, in their belief that shipping will be under increasing pressure to reduce toxic and greenhouse gas emissions in the decades to come. LNG appears to offer a viable alternative to fuel oil. The study concludes that a supply infrastructure will be set up for maritime LNG supplies soon, and that the product will gain traction in the market as a ship fuel in the medium term. This would solve the problem of toxic emissions, but would not cut the greenhouse gas effect. LNG combustion emits just 20% less greenhouse gas than diesel oil, and this advantage is at least partly counteracted by the release of methane, a greenhouse gas.
Shipbuilding engineers will thus have to address prescribed improvements to the carbon balance through individual measures. They will have to adapt ship power plants and propellers to the now ubiquitous practise of slow steaming, for example. This outlook will not change until hybrid technologies or even fuel cells become widely used technologies. The DNV GL experts do not see this coming about until just before 2050, at the very earliest.
Bottlenecks in alternative fuels
One problem will be the availability of alternative fuels in the near future, however. Until now, only conventional fossil fuels are capable of meeting a significant share of the global shipping industry’s fuel needs. The first generation of bio-fuels has already faded to near insignificance, as it competes with the cultivation of food crops.
The DNV GL specialists do not think bio-fuels will become attractive until they can be manufactured solely from waste products. There may only be limited quantities available, however, and there will be bottlenecks in the supply infrastructure. By 2030 bio-gas and bio-fuels will become part of an ever-more heterogeneous fuel mix, but they will be used mainly in regional or niche markets.