Turbulence ahead for shipping’s smart future

I happened to be flying from Hamburg to London last week when storm Doris was doing her worst to disrupt travel and transport in the UK. Having already had my original homeward flight cancelled, I raced onboard and sat tight even though I knew what might be coming.

After an hour on the tarmac while Heathrow decided if they would let us take-off, we finally departed and I turned my attention to typing up some notes on – what else – digital disruption and the future of smart shipping.

As the flight drew on, the bumps and shocks grew worse, as did the queasiness of many passengers for whom being violently buffeted by high winds had not been part of their plans.

On final approach conditions worsened dramatically and much use was made of what we used to call sick bags but which are nowadays probably known as universal waste fluid solutions.

How apt, I thought, in an increasingly desperate attempt to take my mind off the buffeting. I am experiencing a physical manifestation of what is happening – and will continue to happen – to shipping.

The principle trouble with the future of shipping is that, to my mind, the graphics department has got ahead of engineering’s ability to deliver. But there are more fundamental issues too.

Let’s begin at the sharp end of the challenges. A realistic re-valuation of shipping assets and re-ordering of business models will call for a very strong stomachs; it’s the reason why so little of either has happened.

The prospects for digitally disintermediated sectors – freight forwarding is under pressure but there are others – look fragile. We are told almost continually how much the industry needs to embrace its role in the wider supply chain but many will baulk at the changes this requires.

There was plenty to ponder but I wondered if in fact this wasn’t the storm but really just the tremors that precede the real action. My notes on disruption and shipping’s digital future are increasingly typically of the content I produce and some recent conversations make me think there may even be something of a backlash building against the futurologists.

I won’t speak for my clients but from a personal point of view, some of the ideas we hear proposed as part of shipping’s smart future will remain at the very outer edges of credibility.

I’m pretty tired of lazy reversions to arguments for autonomous ships that prefer snazzy graphics to actual use cases. Forget a milk run from the Elbe to the UK, when transiting the North Atlantic in winter, an owner as well as a shipper will want crew on board to keep an eye on the cargo and the ship. Problems that go unattended can very quickly have huge commercial and environmental consequences and crew costs are relatively minor compared to the potential costs of not being able to respond to problems.

Equally, when I hear speakers talk about the Uberisation I wonder whether those making the assertions really understand their context. We are hearing about this subject as if it is expected tomorrow and the over-excitable believe the industry can solve operational problems with better apps.

Yes, software will help make operations safer and play a powerful and transformative role in connecting demand with supply, but when it comes to fulfilment it’s still all about steel.

What is much harder is for companies to look at their internal structure, cost base and business model and decide whether it is sustainable. Just because the future is not going to be like the past doesn’t mean we have to throw everything away.

As for the return of wind power, well I don’t need to remind you what happened to the last company to try this one on. Navigating bad weather is difficult enough without having also to manage sails, so the usage window will likely be small.

Agree or disagree, the mistake is to buy the hype. Spending too much time thinking about wind power, autonomy or Uberisation risks wasting time that could be used on more pressing problems. There are plenty of technologies whose time – thanks to better bandwidth and cloud computing – has come but where to focus and refocus is as important as simply looking for the latest shiny and fashionable thing.

As my flight landed safely a round of applause broke out, only the second time I’ve witnessed such an expression of airline love in three decades of business travel.

I won’t labour the fact that this was because a qualified and highly competent team of humans was in the cockpit making decisions and anticipating risk faster than a computer. You’re human, and I suspect had already worked out how the story would end.

Neville Smith

Neville Smith is director of maritime PR consultancy Mariner Communications. His fee for this column has been donated to Sailors Society.


  1. I am a little bit disappointed, Neville is usually a very interesting read. It’s not a matter of either or, digitalisation will come and the maritime industry will also have to embrace it.
    When electricity was introduced, I am sure no one could imagine led light, but I don’t think anyone protested against the invention..
    I don’t think there will be automous ships tomorrow, but there will be remote controlled vessels and Sea Traffic Management rather soon – and then we all will say “why didn’t this happen earlier?”
    New business models – well that is inevitable, Ûber comparisons apart.

  2. Neville, I think you summed things up about right. Perhaps influenced by your bumpy ride? On each occasion I ride vessels to assess navigational and operational safety standards I am always surprised how little has really changed over my 55 years in the business, other than addition of some fancy aids to navigation & communication. It says to me that prudent shipowners are going to be very slow to adopt so called smart solutions, if the old ways can still deliver the returns they require?

  3. I agree with Chris Allport. Neville has got it about right.

    There is very little money available for innovation in ships or in their operations, and that very fact discourages those who invest in them from “taking the risk” of a development that might not work.

  4. Funny though that solutions salespeople are preaching digitisation and all us repeat without anyone having set out what they really mean by the term.
    Real life is not a powerpoint presentation and consultants rarely grasp how services are produced in this industry and how networks are developed via long term trial and error [thus an evolutionary process].
    Smart-anything is already deployed at operations level, telematics in ports and so on…, an endless realm of cost cutting possibilities. But i can hardly expect that S&P or chartering might take place through facebook!

    But preaching autonomous ships [ever thought what would cost to insure a 500kDwt autonomous tanker?] is i think a deliberate [or unwitting] contribution to those who have something to sell in that respect.

    We are discussing a business where shipowners are reluctant to torch the oldest and less efficient ships of the fleet [see dry bulk] in order to restore equilibrium and yet some people believe that we could exchange roughnecks doing the thing in the middle of the Atlantic with casually dressed millennials wielding iphones and enjoying gourmet hamburgers ashore, while trying to sort out a problem in the cape Horn with smart apps?

  5. Future is among us like it was 20,30,40 etc.. years ago.
    Acceptance and adaptation are two different subjects.
    We cannot ignore the future and its impact in our daily business.
    Adaptation is the key to remain afloat but most important of all is to make sure that this future is based on sound judgements acquired from the past.
    No matter what the future and its challenges may bring upon the shipping world, we will have to continue sailing into some uncharted waters until they become a usual part of our daily life.
    We do not need to be afraid of the future but to be vigilant that the new technologies do not overtake what we humans created from the early times of life.
    Shipping in all its different activities is made of people and their capability of communicating.
    Let us not forget that the human power remains always in control of any new technology and NOT vice-versa.

  6. Neville’s feature and the comments in its wake left me wondering if the in-flight movie was Hidden Figures.
    (Yes, time for a spoiler alert for the film buffs.)
    Having just watched that historical account of a time when NASA’s space exploration team ‘embraced’ their first IMB mainframe, two scenes come to mind.
    At one point the mathematicians plotting John Glenn’s first orbit, stymied by the re-entry calculation, find the solution in an old yet trusted calculation method that delivers what the latest available technology, the IBM mainframe, could not.
    But perhaps even more material to the digital revolution, later on in the film the shiny new IBM mainframe spits out conflicting data regarding the space flight coordinates.
    The solution?
    Katherine Johnson, armed with pencils, paper and an old calculator.
    The so-called human element saved the day.
    Of course there have been countless advancements with computing, digitalisation, AI, big data, etc. etc. since 1961.
    Yet the track record is far from spotless, as a few GPS-equipped motorists have found out after trying to drive their cars over bridges that hadn’t been built yet.
    Clearly we will need many like Katherine ashore and at sea for some time to come, so don’t go and sell all the sextants just yet.

    1. You could be right Sam, although it would have been the perfect time to switch on Denzel Washington’s movie Flight – for the complete 4D experience, including l’essence d’barf!

  7. Trust me Neville, computers and technology played a much bigger role landing your plane than the competent crew in the cockpit.

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