For years, the promise of fully self-driving cars has loomed, accompanied by optimistic projections and ambitious timelines. However, despite numerous road trials and technological advancements, the realization of this vision is still pending. Lyft projected that most of its rides would be self-driving by 2021, and General Motors aimed to mass produce fully autonomous vehicles even sooner in 2017. Yet, the challenge of developing a car capable of navigating every conceivable road scenario has proven more formidable than anticipated.

Interestingly, the situation differs when it comes to autonomous boats. Waterways, with their sparser vehicle presence and absence of pedestrian complexities, offer fewer obstacles to contend with. Moreover, boats often operate along established routes, such as shipping channels and ferry crossings, simplifying the navigation process compared to self-driving cars.

Already, a variety of self-driving boats are operating on water bodies worldwide. Equipped with advanced artificial intelligence and sensor systems, these boats adeptly navigate, avoid obstacles, and adapt to changing conditions in real-time. They have been employed in tasks ranging from cargo transportation and search and rescue missions to passenger ferries and tugboats. These autonomous vessels can undertake complex assignments, including monitoring water quality, collecting oceanographic data, and assisting in offshore construction projects.

In the Netherlands, for instance, the canals have witnessed trials of electric and fully autonomous Roboats developed by MIT and funded by the City of Amsterdam. These self-driving boats are even capable of forming floating infrastructure such as docks and bridges. The company behind them now envisions building an autonomous ferry to operate during the Paris Olympic Games in 2024. Similarly, Dubai has experimented with an autonomous Abra ferry, while Yara International, a chemical company in Norway, has unveiled the Yara Birkeland—a fully electric autonomous cargo ship and the world’s first of its kind, promoting environmentally friendly freight movement.

Advocates argue that autonomous boats, with their reduced risk of human error, have the potential to enhance safety, minimize accidents, optimize fuel consumption, and reduce carbon emissions. As self-driving boats continue to chart successful waters, the question arises: how long will it be before we witness the widespread autonomy of vehicles on land?

By Impact Lab