The dawn of unmanned and autonomous vessels and the legal consequences of a M.A.S.S. collision.
Surian, Ivana Bianca.
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Technology is developing at a rapid pace and the world is now faced with the introduction of unmanned and autonomous vessels. This dissertation analyses the attribution of legal liability for collision damage caused by such vessels where there was a defect or malfunction with its onboard software. Since there is no longer a crew and master on board, the question that arises is whether liability can be partly attributed to the manufacturer and partly to the shore-based control operator or, where there is no fault, whether the shipowner of the unmanned vessel can be held solely liable. This dissertation provides a detailed discussion of the current liability framework applicable to the conventional vessels of today (under both international maritime laws and South African national laws). It then presents a detailed analysis on the issue of collision liability for the unmanned and autonomous vessel. This includes an examination of the various permutations of liability (fault-based liability for personal negligence, vicarious liability and liability for the actions of independent contractors, as well as strict and product liability), as well as an analysis of where the current liability framework would apply to these new forms of vessels and where it will need to be clarified or amended in order to regulate safety at sea sufficiently. This dissertation finds that the introduction of these vessels will bring a change to the maritime legal framework as we know it today. For the most part, the shipowner’s identity and role will remain the same, as a shipowner can be held liable regardless of how his/her vessel is operated. It is in relation to the master’s role in the maritime industry that we can expect colossal changes, with new emerging entities such as the shore-based control operator and voyage programmer. Furthermore, the various collision and safety rules and regulations (both internationally and nationally) will need to be clarified and/or amended. The findings of this analysis are discussed in relation to the work already completed by the prominent international organisations and associations in the maritime industry (such as the IMO, CMI and BIMCO). It is recommended that the South African legislature consider bringing the South African national maritime and admiralty laws in line with international best practices.