Issue 08 2021

COLREGs and Autonomous Vessels: Legal and Ethical Concerns under Canadian Law


The present study focuses on legal and ethical questions raised with respect to autonomous – more specifically remotely controlled and fully autonomous – vessels and COLREGs under Canadian law. The legal questions revolve around issues such as whether an autonomous vessel may be qualified as a vessel under COLREGs and whether an autonomous vessel can abide by the COLREGs look-out (Rules 5) and good seamanship (Rule 2) requirements. It concludes that although the look-out and good seamanship requirements could be performed by remotely controlled vessels without making major changes to the existing rules, for fully autonomous vessels, decision making under Rule 5 (proper look-out) and Rule 2 (good seamanship) cannot be viewed, at this stage, as conforming with  COLREGs. The legal issues examined under COLREGs and the solutions we provide to them reflect ethical concerns raised by autonomous vessels and the degree to which we trust AI in shipping. This study identifies the need for ethical principles to govern autonomous vessels and provides some direction in developing these principles.

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