Will autonomous ship owners be held liable for autonomous failures?

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Autonomous navigation could present difficulties in determining liability in the event of an accident, according to veteran Admiralty Judge and Arbitrator Sir Nigel Teare. The introduction of self-propelled merchant ships means that if software running a ship makes the same mistake as a second mate, a court may not be able to determine liability, especially after a recent Supreme Court decision. The software controls voyage plans, meaning owners either need to anticipate and be held accountable for errors, or argue that deficiencies occurred when the ship was not under the owner’s control, making the digital AI navigator the legal equivalent of an officer on watch.

In Admiralty cases, the testimony of software engineers will be important. They will be asked whether the owner should have determined in advance that the software was buggy, or whether the software made a bad decision at the moment of navigation. If owners are deemed to have failed to exercise due care, then they will be held liable. However, Sir Nigel believes that it will be difficult to prove negligence of this type, concluding that the focus should be on the owner’s surveillance of the software to ensure it was fit for purpose.

Tags: AI navigation


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