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World’s First Autonomous Electric Container Ship Sets Sail

The world’s first fully electric and self-steering container ship, owned by fertilizer maker Yara, is preparing to navigate Norway’s southern coast and play its part in the country’s plans to clean up its industry.

The Yara Birkeland, an 80-meter-long feeder vessel, is set to replace truck haulage between Yara’s plant in Porsgrunn in southern Norway and its export port in Brevik, about 8.7 miles away by road, starting next year. It will cut 1,000 tons of carbon emissions per year, equivalent to 40,000 diesel-powered journeys by road, and is expected to be fully autonomous in two years, the company said.

For Yara, it means reducing CO2 emissions at its plant in Porsgrunn, one of Norway’s single largest sources of CO2, CEO Svein Tore Holsether said.

“Now we have taken this technological leap to show it is possible and I’m thinking there are so many routes in the world where it is possible to implement the same type of ship,” he told Reuters.

Built by Vard Norway, Kongsberg provided key technology, including the sensors and integration required for remote and autonomous operations.

“This isn’t about replacing the sailors, it’s replacing the truck drivers,” Yara’s Jostein Braaten, project manager for the ship, said at the ship’s bridge, which will be removed when the vessel is running at full automation.

The ship will load and offload its cargo, recharge its batteries and also navigate without human involvement. Sensors will be able to quickly detect and understand objects like kayaks in the water so the ship can decide what action to take to avoid hitting anything, Braaten said.

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The system should be an improvement over having a manual system, he added.

“We’ve taken away the human element, which today is also the cause of many of the accidents we see,” Braaten said.

The ship, which will undertake two journeys per week at startup, has the capacity to ship 120 TEUs of fertilizer at a time. It is powered by batteries provided by Swiss Leclanche packing seven megawatt hours over eight battery rooms, the equivalent of 100 Tesla cars, Braaten said.

In September, FedEx Corp. kicked off a collaboration with Aurora–an autonomous technology developer–and PACCAR, a medium-and heavy-duty vehicle manufacturers, to test Aurora’s autonomous driving technology in PACCAR state-of-the-art autonomous vehicle platform-equipped trucks within FedEx linehaul trucking operations.

Earlier, Aurora and PACCAR announced a strategic partnership to build and deploy autonomous trucks at scale. This latest collaboration will incorporate the FedEx’s logistics expertise to help accelerate the deployment. The three companies will leverage their collective expertise in transportation to advance autonomous technology in linehaul operations.