The world’s first self-driving ferry is now in service

The MF Estelle is part of a plan to create environmentally friendly transportation alternatives on the water.
Zeabuz ferry
A self-driving ferry pushes off this week. Zeabuz

The world’s first self-driving commercial passenger ferry started operating this week in Stockholm, Sweden. The MF Estelle was built by Zeabuz, a Norwegian start up, and will be operated by Torghatten, a Swedish ferry company under the brand name Zeam (Zero Emission Autonomous Mobility). It’s one of the first truly practical, real world examples of autonomous transportation that we’ve seen. 

The MF Estelle is both autonomous and electric. Its electric propulsion system is powered by solar panels on the top of the vessel. In the press release announcing the partnership, Stein Andre Herigstad-Olsen, CEO of Torghatten, said that “Estelle is a sustainable and green pioneer, offering a solution to traffic congestion and inspiring alternative modes of transportation.” It is the first step in the company’s plan to “create a network of virtual bridges, utilizing waterways to alleviate road congestion and promote affordable, environmentally friendly, and safe urban mobility.” 

While the MF Estelle will initially have an operator on board to make sure everything goes smoothly, Torghatten and Zeabuz intend for it to operate fully autonomously with an onshore supervisor by 2024. According to Zeabuz, multiple vessels using its ZeaMaster technology can be supervised by a single onshore supervisor, in much the same way that one of Wing’s pilots can manage multiple delivery drones. During normal operations, each vessel is able to safely navigate itself. When something unexpected happens, the “risk-aware supervisory control algorithm” makes sure the vessel adapts by slowing down, allowing more space in the waterway, stopping in place, and alerting the operator that a decision on how to proceed is needed. Seemingly, Torghatten is confident that the system is sufficient for busy city waterways shared with other vessels, canoes, kayaks, stand up paddle boarders, and even swimmers. 

Starting this week, the ferry will depart twice an hour from each side of the Riddarfjärden bay, crossing between Kungsholmen and Södermalm, two of the major island-districts in central Stockholm. Torghatten intends to extend that to four departures from each side each hour, and operate it for 15 hours a day. That’s a total of 120 daily sailings, each capable of transporting up to 24 passengers. Tickets cost 35 Swedish Krona (~$3.25).

While the MF Estelle is the first commercially operated passenger ferry, it isn’t the only electric autonomous vessel in development. Hurtigruten Norway hopes to have a zero-emission cruise ship in the water by 2030. It would be propelled by 50m-high sail wings (164 feet) as well as an electric engine system. It will also have multiple large batteries that are recharged by solar panels, wind technology, and the electric grid when it’s in port. 

Last summer, in a first for autonomous vehicles, the Mayflower Autonomous Ship successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean without human crew. The trip wasn’t without issue—it was bound for Virginia but actually had to end its40-day 3,500 mile journey in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

And, of course, militaries are interested in these kinds of vessels too. Both the Colombian Navy and the US Navy have openly discussed how electric unmanned vessels could play a major role in future military operations—and are actively developing them. 

For now though, the MF Estelle still stands in a class of her own. If you’re in Stockholm, you can take a passage on the first autonomous electric ferry with no apps, NDAs, or other hassle.