The international, globalized ocean freight industry exists today through the creation and proliferation of one specific innovation: the now-ubiquitous ISO shipping container. This simple standard for size and construction propelled the technological innovations that allowed ocean freight to exist in its current format; currently, the shipping industry carries 90% of the world’s trade. However, due to the worldwide adoption of the internet and the continued digitization of industry, the ocean freight industry could soon undergo technological disruption on the scale of the ISO container itself.
One of the biggest upcoming technological advancements that is likely to fundamentally change shipping is autonomous operation. Autonomous vehicles are already poised to disrupt the trucking and ground shipping industries, and the same is true for seafaring vessels. In fact, we will see the first autonomously operating ship this year, as the Norwegian Yara Birkeland is scheduled to begin modest operation in late 2018. While autonomous ships certainly have drawbacks, their advantages are clear. The Wall Street Journal reports that ships like the electric-powered Birkeland, which is without need for crew or fuel, can “cut annual operating costs by up to 90%.”
But technology doesn’t need shiny, multi-million dollar ships to disrupt the ocean freight industry; it can do it the way that it has with other industries: creative utilization of internet apps and services. Two such companies are Flexport and OpenSea. Both companies are attempting to do in the shipping industry what Uber did in the taxi and transport industries. By working with shipowners, charterers, and brokers, and by providing as much logistical information as possible, these companies are trying to connect the supply and demand through technology. Not surprisingly, ‘Uber of the Seas’ is an enviable position for startups.
Whether or not these specific initiatives succeed, it is certain that the shipping and logistical industries will undergo some intense changes relatively soon. Even somewhat older tech companies like Amazon are expanding into the global logistics industry, which in and of itself would be disruptive enough even without the varying other technological advancements. With innovation moving faster and faster, logistics has a huge opportunity to take advantage and step fully into the modern world.