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United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation


Monday, July 22, 2019






JULY 22, 2019 – 9:00 - 10:00 AM

Good morning. Thank you for joining us. It’s great to be with you today. On behalf of everyone at dot and the maritime administration, i want to thank you for being a part of this important dialogue on maritime automation. 

I also bring you greetings from my boss, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao. As an advocate and supporter of the U.S. maritime industry, we couldn’t have a better champion at dot that secretary Chao. She’s made safety, infrastructure, and clearing pathways for the introduction of advanced technology in the transportation world hallmarks of her tenure as secretary, so I know she’d be pleased to see so many of you engaged in this discussion today.

So the next two days are about taking a fix. Our aim is to equip you with some of the latest developments and directions in the U.S. vessel automation industry – who is doing what, and why. We have a truly outstanding lineup of speakers over the next two days. But the most important part of this event will be your level of engagement and how you choose to exploit the nuggets of understanding that will be shared.

If you are like me, some of what will be discussed here today and tomorrow is going to make you feel a bit uncomfortable…. Make you shift in your seat, or even say to yourself – “glad I’m not going to have to deal with all that.”

But there are others in this room – like those young midshipmen – who are itching to get their hands on this new technology and make it do things that analog dinosaurs like me and some of you wouldn’t even conceive.

Change is not easy, and for sure, the level of change that could come about as a result of applying some of the technologies that will be discussed here are not insignificant at all…they have huge second and third order effects. As leaders, we need to understand that and chart the best course ahead for our particular set of circumstances.

I think it’s a valid question to ask ourselves: is this the next “big thing” in the maritime industry? Is this something we need to take a deep breath and jump onboard with, or cautiously watch at a safe distance? 

I think back about the introduction of the shipping container and how quickly that changed the whole face of logistics, and how some jumped onboard – and some saw it as a passing experiment. 

I think that it’s true that, at the end of the day, the degree of automation or autonomy that is introduced in our industry, and the speed at which it occurs will ultimately be driven by the business case versus the risk. When you think about it, not every great technology – no matter how good it is – gets adopted unless it is accepted, and it doesn’t get accepted if people don’t trust it, or it doesn’t fulfill a need, or the risks are perceived as too high.  

I think about that every time i am down at canton piers not far from here in Baltimore harbor and walk aboard the beautiful marvel of engineering and technology – the nuclear ship savannah. Many at the time though she would revolutionize the maritime industry. We know how that ended up.

I'm not suggesting that the same will be borne out for autonomous vessels, but I do think the technology has a lot of convincing to do. I have no doubt the technology discussions that we have lined up will be thought-provoking, and will do some of the convincing. And I hope we will all go home enlightened about the possibilities that maritime automation open up.

From my perspective, as maritime administrator, and as someone who deeply cares about the future of this industry, my interest is in how automation can strengthen the U.S. maritime transportation system and advance the traditional values which have made maritime the focus of pretty much my entire life.

The way we see automation at the maritime administration is as a potential enabler to a safer, more efficient, and more competitive mode of water transportation that provides more and better jobs for America’s highly trained and dedicated mariners.  

Our mission at the maritime administration is to support a robust United States maritime industry. In earlier years that meant a focus on the blue-water international trading fleet of the United States, and our vital jones act domestic fleet. Clearly a lot of our focus is still there.  

Our advocacy now extends to America’s Marine Highways, our system of ports, coastwise and inland waterways, which we believe can again be as critical a transportation asset as our nation’s interstate highway system. 

But to me, and to many others who have been kicking around the waterfront for a while, the maritime industry comes down to people: highly-trained, highly-skilled American mariners sailing ships large and small on U.S. waterways and around the world. They are the heart and soul of this industry and are what motivate me and our work at the maritime administration.

So I am deeply invested in the future of the U.S. merchant marine academy at kings point—of which I am a proud graduate—our six state-operated maritime academies, and the many community colleges, training institutions and even high schools that are preparing Americans for maritime careers. They are places where young women and men can make their dreams of a life in the maritime industry a reality.   When I think about automation and new technologies – I think about the future of those young folks and their shipmates already at sea.  

I get around to the academies pretty often.  In those visits, I remind the cadets, their instructors, and academy leadership that the maritime industry is changing, and that how we train mariners, and how we approach maritime policy in Washington must change with it. There’s no greater example of that change than maritime automation and how we carry forward our traditional maritime values while adapting to a new reality on the seas.

At the same time we need to “future-proof” the skills of our new graduates so that they can ride with, and profit from, technological advances and as a community ensure the livelihoods of those workers who might be displaced by using their skillsets in new ways as technology changes. 

I have loved the sea and getting under way my whole life. Personally, I believe that the opportunity for others to have that same experience will be around for decades to come. 

As we deal with our own modern-day shift from sail to steam in the form of vessel automation, it is up to the leaders in this room to ensure that it is done well, intelligently, and for the benefit of the greater good. I pray that we all have enough sense to make the right call.

Thank you for being here. Enjoy the conference.