Maersk CEO Can't Imagine Self-Sailing Box Ships in His Lifetime

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(Bloomberg) -- The chief executive officer of the world’s biggest shipping company says it’s unlikely container vessels will operate without humans in his lifetime.

A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S has already pushed through enough cuts to reduce crew sizes in response to the spread of automation, CEO Soren Skou said in an interview. He says the workforce has now reached a floor and there’s no more room to get rid of humans.

“Even if the technology advances, I don’t expect we will be allowed to sail around with 400-meter long container ships, weighing 200,000 tonnes without any human beings on board,” the 53-year-old CEO said. “I don’t think it will be a driver of efficiency, not in my time.”

There are more than 6,000 ships in the global container fleet and they can transport 22 million standard 20-foot boxes, industry consultant Alphaliner estimates. Ships have grown bigger, but efficiency and automation have kept crew sizes in check, meaning Maersk needs less than half as many sailors to transport a container as it did 20 years ago.

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Container ships are unlikely to grow much bigger, Maersk has said. Skou says there’s little cost benefit in getting rid of more humans. To be sure, Maersk has developed a self-sailing tug boat at its Svitzer towage unit, but the concept won’t be rolled out to container vessels because “is not a cornerstone of our strategy,” Skou said.

It’s not that Maersk is a stranger to innovation. The Copenhagen-based company, which often has led the industry in new ship designs, is investing more than ever in going digital. Last month, it formed a joint venture with IBM to develop the use of blockchain technology to manage and track cross-border trade.

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The marine unit of Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc is the pioneer in developing self-sailing technologies. Its CEO, Warren East, has sharpened the focus on autonomous shipping as a future business to address a downturn in the offshore oil industry. But even after cutting 4,200 jobs, the unit has remained unprofitable and was put up for sale last month.

“I must admit, it’s not hugely interesting for us,” Skou said.

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