In 20 years, could it be possible that 50 percent of all domestic ships on Japan’s coastal waters will be piloting themselves? Absolutely. A public interest organization in Japan, the Nippon Foundation, seeks to accomplish just that. The Foundation is backing Japan’s development of autonomous ships with the goal of making up 50 percent of Japan’s local fleet by 2040.

To reach this goal, in February 2022, a group of vessels, including Japan’s largest shipping company, Nippon Yusen, will test the use of a container ship autonomously piloting itself from Tokyo Bay to Ise (a small coastal city). While many autonomous ships have attempted journeys before, this one is different. This journey will be 236 miles and will be the first autonomous ship test in an area with heavy marine traffic. To conduct this test, the team will gather data such as weather and radar points at a support center on land. The support center will then send directions back to the ship. If there are any complications, the ship’s steering can be remotely taken over by the team at the support center.

By 2030, it is predicted that the global autonomous shipping industry could grow to a value of about $166 billion. Japan Marine Science general manager said that “[w]hen it comes to the automation of ships, our mission is to have Japan lead the rest of the world.” Japan is trying to position itself as the leader based on a need. Japan’s workforce continues to shrink and age. For example, in Japan’s domestic tanker industry about 40 percent of crews are aged 55 or older. Further, based on estimates of the Nippon Foundation, autonomous ships (and the artificial intelligence that they use) will improve efficiencies enough to have a positive effect of about $9 billion for Japan’s economy in 2040. Of course, the use of autonomous ships also increases safety as well with about 70 percent of maritime accidents resulting from human error.

The biggest challenge to the widespread use of this technology will be creating and implementing a regulatory environment and industry standards for autonomous shipping; even if the technology is ready and available, these regulatory hurdles could impact practical use in the near future.