Owner’s View: Driving is a dying art

Nov 5, 2020 by Melvin Miller

Many of our younger crew members have looked forward to becoming command drivers on a large yacht. I understand that desire. Over the decades, I have tried to provide some wheel time to almost all our crew and many of our guests, since driving a vehicle (boat, car, or airplane) can provide a satisfying accomplishment of the meaningful task of moving the vehicle from one point to another.

The accomplishment is significant because the driver must constantly know the position of the vehicle and the best route to the destination and to simultaneously avoid contact with another vehicle or a stationary object. In yachting, we tend to call the first part navigation and the second part close-in maneuvering. Both require the driver to control the speed and direction of the vehicle and both contribute to the joy of driving.

After many years, an old man can still enjoy not using the navigation system in my car and taking a curve somewhat aggressively on a back-country road; or driving a tri-deck on a well- remembered series of course lines without looking at a chart plotter and then through a seemingly solid field of lobster buoys, to conclude by standing at a wing station to bring the swim platform close enough for boarding with wind and tide opposed. That is, I must turn off some of the presently used technology to achieve some of the sense of accomplishment.

That was not always necessary. I was first taught to control the speed and direction of a boat using only oars and its position by visual fixes on two landmarks (a great way to internalize tidal flow), and then taught to control a boat’s speed and direction with sails and a tiller (a great way to internalize windage) and its position by dead reckoning with a compass and timepiece, occasionally aided by a noon sight on a sextant. I also remember driving a questionable car cross country without usable maps and controlling my speed by downshifting to avoid overheating questionable brakes, and I remember following a river or railroad track in a light aircraft. I even remember when most elevators required an operator.

Technology has made those skills non-essential and rarely taught, so I make certain that my crew or guests understand the technology available when I offer to let them drive. The present reality is that the navigation part of driving is now performed much better by technical devices, and we are rapidly approaching the time when digital devices will outperform humans in close-in maneuvering.

Almost without exception, the folks I know who earn a living driving a boat, plane, car, bus or truck can provide situational examples of the need for a human driver. I try to respond politely by noting that I have been making bets on technology for decades, and that the best bets are on technologies that pay off by reducing a significant cost of labor. Commercial pilots, yacht drivers and unionized truck drivers are properly well paid, but their compensation levels make them targets for technological innovations.

Those innovations are rarely gradual. The almost total elimination of the function of long leg navigation occurred rapidly after the GPS system was opened for civilian use. The development of fast processors and inexpensive digital data storage is rapidly taking over the close-in maneuvering function of landing an aircraft, parking a car, or docking a vessel. The capture and use of user generated depth soundings already allows some chart plotters to offer to draw a safe route for vessels whose draft does not demand the use of navigation buoys. There are already more than enough sensors and motion control equipment to allow fully automatous land, air and water vehicles, including close-in maneuvering. We await only sufficient control software, which is being developed rapidly by the ever-increasing number of smart young people able to write code.

Airbus has demonstrated a standard jetliner that can autonomously taxi as well as take off and land, and a swarm of fully autonomous drones jointly erecting a structure is more than sufficient technical justification for the prediction that there will be much less demand for aircraft pilots. The savings from the replaced pilot labor costs is a sufficient financial justification for the development cost of the innovation.

Carnegie Mellon is no longer the only center of excellence for vehicles able to autonomously navigate streets and roads. Level 4 autonomous cars are already available; level 5 cars are being extensively field tested, and essentially every economist now insists that there will be a vast reduction in the need for professional car and truck drivers. Again, the savings from the replaced labor costs of the professional drivers justifies the cost of development.

The cost of a helmsman on many commercial vessels is not great, and there are not enough highly paid yacht drivers to justify a large development effort to replace them, but the development will continue for vessels because new owner/operators do not wish to endure the years of training needed when technology was much more primitive, and the ever-improving equipment they purchase can be superior to the equipment mandated for commercial vessels.

Vessels of all sizes have long employed autopilots, almost all of which interface with position-fixing equipment so extensive actual wheeltime at sea is a rarity. Autopilots are already interfacing with depth sounders and databases for inshore piloting. The automation of docking is beginning through algorithms that control thrusters and pod drives and may soon adequately control prop walking the stern. The sensors and software needed to avoid hitting the dock or another vessel appear to be simply marinized versions of the inexpensive counterparts used in automobiles. 

Like it or not, there appear to be enough owner/operators who want to operate a boat safely without knowing anything beyond the ignition key, and that market is large enough to justify innovations that will reduce significantly the need for professional boat drivers.

At this point, yacht captains, aircraft pilots and long-haul truckers usually interject that insurance companies and licensing agencies will demand their presence at the wheel, because a primary function of insurance underwriters and licensing agencies has been to reduce the risk of human error by requiring aircraft, vehicle or vessel drivers to pass certain tests. 

However, both insurance companies and licensing agencies are already considering the new evaluation methods and standards required as sensors are used instead of human eyes, processors are used instead of human brains, and actuators are used instead of human hands. Even if these new standards are introduced very slowly, the current licenses held by aircraft pilots, long-haul truckers and megayacht captains may be archaic within a few decades.

It is reasonably certain that there will be fewer airline pilots and cab and truck drivers in future, but there should not be a significant reduction in the number of yacht captains. Those captains who think of themselves primarily as drivers or navigators will be disappointed because fewer future captains will have an opportunity to display previously important skills. Those who understand that they are primarily the managers of a very expensive asset and crew will continue to enjoy job satisfaction and the compensation appropriately paid to effective managers.

Although many yacht refits already include the installation of multiple ethernet backbones to allow the continuous upgrade of increasingly automatic equipment, fully automatous yachts are not yet available, so yachts still need someone at or near the helm. However, younger members of the industry now preparing for future command might think a little less about the easily replaceable helmsman function and think a little more about all of the other facets of running a crewed yacht. Owners will still want someone to be in charge to handle the wide variety of people and expense management issues. Some owners may prefer, as did the first users of automated elevators, to have someone pretend to be operating the controls, but most owners will by then own and appreciate a Level 4 or 5 automatous car so they may well prefer a captain who is an excellent manager of a valuable and expensive asset as opposed to a helmsman trying to compete with ever-improving processors.

Crewed yachting is an industry, not a sport or a pastime for its professionals. Current captains earn their salaries even though they are no longer required to know how to back a sail to get the vessel off a quay, mooring or anchor, and future captains will earn their salaries without placing their hands on a throttle or rudder control. There are still a few captains on Down East head boats that amuse the customers by backing the sails, but I have never recommended that as a logical career path for new entrants to professional boating.

Melvyn Miller is an American yacht owner from the U.S. East Coast. He has owned and operated yachts for six decades and employed crew for more than 30 years. Comments on this column are welcome below.