September 19, 2023

Ranking Members Larsen, Carbajal Statements from Hearing on Autonomous and Experimental Maritime Technologies

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Ranking Member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Rick Larsen (D-WA) and Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Salud Carbajal (D-CA) during today’s hearing titled, “Use and Regulation of Autonomous and Experimental Maritime Technologies.”

More information on the hearing can be found here.

Ranking Member Larsen:
Thank you, Chairman Webster and Ranking Member Carbajal for holding this important hearing. Today we will hear from leaders in the Coast Guard and the maritime industry about exciting innovations in autonomous and experimental vessels.

Automation will play an increasingly important role in both the commercial maritime industry and Coast Guard operations.

Coast Guard UAVs, engine automation, use of uncrewed vessels, and the better collection and use of data will expand the reach of the Service without requiring more Coasties. 

To best leverage new technologies, the Coast Guard needs significant financial and human resources. Any cuts to the Coast Guard’s funding will send us in the wrong direction.

Autonomous vessels present some clear opportunities for the Coast Guard to expand its capacity, such as in completing dangerous missions in inhospitable climates like the Arctic, increasing surveillance capacity and enhancing oversight of fishing operations.

However, I have concerns over the lack of a regulatory framework for new technologies and autonomous vessels.

For example, the Titan submersible tragedy demonstrates a need for stronger rules and safety requirements for experimental vessels and emerging technologies.

The international maritime industry, where ships are often owned by investors, built in one country, registered in a different country, and operated by mariners from all over the world, is defined by a complicated framework of regulations and oversight.

Plus, current law assumes that vessels are crewed by people. Developing an effective regulatory framework for autonomous vessels will be a major undertaking—requiring coordination between Congress, the Coast Guard, and the International Maritime Organization.

We must also consider automation’s potential impact on maritime jobs. Maintaining the availability of well-paying jobs and minimizing the displacement of jobs from automation is a priority of mine.

Innovation cannot come at the cost of American jobs. To this end, it is important to include labor organizations early in conversations around a regulatory framework.

On the topic of innovation, the development of new vessel technology brings the opportunity to incorporate low- and zero-carbon emission technologies into vessel design.

Many vessels in use today use heavy fuel oil, which emits carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide when combusted. Carbon dioxide is a well-known greenhouse gas, and sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide are both air pollutants linked to respiratory disease.

New vessels must be built to reduce and eventually eliminate emissions and make our waterways and communities cleaner.

I’m proud that, in my home state of Washington, we are in the process of building a fleet of hybrid-electric ferries.  Washington State Ferries is the largest ferry system in the U.S. and is the biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions among Washington state agencies.

This transition to hybrid-electric ferries will greatly reduce pollution.

I see a similar opportunity for developing new, clean autonomous vessels and building them in U.S. shipyards.

At their best, new technologies increase safety and efficiency, reduce emissions and create a better experience for workers. At their worst, new technologies introduce security vulnerabilities, decrease safety, increase the risk of accidents, and displace workers.

I look forward to hearing from our witnesses today on how we can ensure a smooth and safe transition to new technologies.

Ranking Member Carbajal:
I wanted to also extend my deepest condolences to the Peltola family and our colleague, Mary, on the passing of her husband Buzzy. The family has my deepest sympathy and I look forward to her coming back when she feels ready.

On June 18th of this year, 5 lives were lost when the Titan submersible imploded descending to the depths of the ocean to visit the Titanic wreckage. I share my condolences to the families of the victims.

Today, we will look at new and experimental maritime technology and, particularly in the shadow of this tragedy, I hope to hear from the Coast Guard and industry on how they plan to ensure safety.

It is important to foster innovation while also protecting lives. The passengers onboard the Titan were not designated as passengers by Oceangate—the owners of the submersible. Rather, they were referred to as a crew, which allowed the company to subvert legal consequences.

In addition, the submersible was not classed, was flagged to the Bahamas, and used materials and designs that had been rejected as unsafe by the rest of the industry.

I am an advocate for passenger and crew safety and we should all demand the utmost regard for safety to apply to any new technology, submersible, or autonomous vessels. 

The maritime industry is innovating rapidly. For both the Coast Guard and the maritime industry, automation has the potential to reduce operational risk, increase safety for mariners and the environment, increase efficiency and transparency, reduce emissions and increase capacity. This is an exciting time and I look forward to hearing about new technological advancements.

However, I have concerns about the removal or reduction of crew unless safety is taken into full consideration and the proper regulations are developed. Current applicable regulations are written with the assumption that crew are onboard the vessels. These regulations are not meant to apply to these new crewless vessels.

We’ve seen instances in the past where a lack of a watchstander has cost lives. In many circumstances, you simply cannot replace a human presence.  When automation is implemented, we must protect U.S. jobs and train the workforce to oversee those systems.

It is imperative that the International Maritime Organization and the U.S. Coast Guard update regulations on autonomous vessels before they become widespread. The recreational vessel classification of the MAYFLOWER—an autonomous vessel that recently sailed across the ocean unmanned—is unacceptable and reduced safety oversight to practically zero.

While I hold concerns, I recognize that technology is progressing and innovation should be embraced when done properly. The U.S. must position itself to be a leader in new maritime technology.

My state of California is a leader in blue technology development such as autonomous or remote systems that allow the Coast Guard to expand their mission capabilities and improve maritime domain awareness.

The Maritime Environmental and Technical assistance program (META) is a small but important program for innovation within the Maritime Administration. This program assists the research, development, and demonstration of new technology in the maritime industry.

META is incredibly underfunded at $10 million this year and without expansion, it will never reach the potential it could have in establishing the U.S. as a leader in maritime innovation. We must continue to fund this program and expand its reach.

Climate change is the single largest threat of our time. I would be remiss not to advocate for the acceleration of alternative fuels and emissions reducing technology in maritime in a conversation about innovation. This year we’ve already seen extreme heatwaves, intense hurricanes, deadly floods, and historic wildfires. My own district saw devesting flooding and mudslides; events that will forever impact my constituents.

Each one of these threats puts increased burdens on the U.S. Coast Guard and has the potential to disrupt the U.S. economy and the maritime supply chain.

Innovation in maritime and Coast Guard assets is vital but we must proceed with caution. Safety is always paramount, and we must keep jobs and emissions in mind as we progress.

Thank you and I yield back.