Plans for an autonomous, purely electric container ship are making waves internationally as Norway positions itself as a global pioneer in alternative propulsion systems. The 'Yara Birkeland' will be the world's first autonomous electric container ship, and will no doubt change freight transport at sea. The ship will be delivered in 2020 and plans are for it to be fully autonomous and operational by 2022. It's been commissioned by the Norwegian fertilizer manufacturer Yara International, which plans to commute with the freighter between ports and thus abandon use of diesel-powered trucks. According to Yara International, the electric ship should able to replace a total of 40,000 truck journeys a year.
Though it's not a particularly large cargo ship, 70 meters long and 14 meters wide with 120 containers on board, the difference is there won't be any people on board, which allows for more of the space to be utilized for shipping cargo. The software and engineering is to be provided by The Kongsberg Group, a major provider of military technology and autonomous control systems, and the Romanian Vard shipyard will build the freighter itself. The batteries will hold seven and a half to nine megawatt hours - the same as up to 90 batteries from the Tesla Model X P100D. Because battery technology is insufficient for long distances, the ship will only make short routes.
Norway has supported the Yara Birkeland with 133.6 million Norwegian kroner - or just under 14 million euros - which is a sizeable chunk of the total project cost of 27 million euros. The country has been working for years to pioneer electric mobility and to find a way to replace diesel trucks with less toxic alternatives. The Norwegian Forum For Autonomous Ships was established in 2016, and Norway began looking at autonomous electric ships as an ideal solution for Norway's large coastal shipping network. Prime Minister Erna Solberg said at the symbolic signing of the contract that she is "proud that the government supported this development."
There's still plenty of room for improvement in the realm of electric mobility in water transportation. Investment can cost one million euros or more, depending on the size of the ship, and batteries are both heavy and take up lots of space. Water currents also affect the consumption of energy, making it difficult for electric boats or ships to travel long distances without places to stop and charge. As technology advances, expect Norway and other countries to begin adopting autonomous ships which can travel even longer distances, potentially changing how ocean freight is transported in the future.