TOKYO -- Japan's shipbuilders and maritime shippers are teaming up to make self-navigating ships a reality by 2025, hoping to lead global development on a project that should dramatically reduce accidents at sea.
Participants including shippers Mitsui O.S.K. Lines and Nippon Yusen plan to split costs and share expertise. Developing the technology is expected to cost tens of billions of yen, or hundreds of millions of dollars, at a minimum.
The artificial-intelligence-driven steering system would use such technologies as the "internet of things" -- the linking of various devices to the net -- to instantaneously gather and analyze data about weather at sea and dangerous obstacles, as well as shipping information. The AI would use this data to plot the most fuel-efficient, safest and shortest route.
The smart ships would also predict onboard malfunctions and other troubles, which would help in avoiding maritime accidents. In addition, the parties aim to implement fully unmanned shipping at some point down the road, hoping to halve the present count of roughly 2,000 maritime accidents per year.
Participating shipbuilders such as Japan Marine United will include the self-navigating system in new ship models, of which they plan to build around 250.
The collaboration between shippers and shipbuilders is intended to help Japan take the lead in developing a technology for which demand worldwide is expected to grow. Japan's shipbuilders, whose global share had been slipping, aim to stage a comeback using the technology and potentially claim around 30% of the market, up from roughly 20% now.
The partnership would also increase the volume of data to be gathered, potentially speeding up development.
Nippon Yusen is already researching technology that would let ships use data to assess collision risks, and Japan Marine is working on a system to diagnose breakdowns before they happen by analyzing a ship's condition, such as the status of its engines and fuel oil.
Even as autonomous-driving technology advances for automobiles, a global development war appears to be brewing for ships as well. Norway recently established a testing area for self-navigating ships. The U.K.'s Rolls-Royce, which counts ship engines among its businesses, has announced plans to develop technology for autonomous shipping.
More than 10 Japanese shipbuilders including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Imabari Shipbuilding are working together to decide new fuel-efficiency standards. The Japanese government will include the joint development of self-navigating ships in a national revitalization strategy it will compile this month. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism will also support the partnership via information gathering and other means. This public-private sector cooperation is aimed at propelling development and helping position Japanese technology as the international standard.