Silent Sailing

With the world’s fleet of electric vessels set to grow, Selwyn Parker explores the quiet revolution taking place at sea

The Bastø Electric ferry from Horten to Moss in Norway. Photo credit: Bastø Fosen AS

When a ferry named Bastø Electric began sailing the main Oslo fjord in March 2021, it was a landmark in a crossing that started nearly 440 years ago.

Ferries have plied between two towns – Moss and Horten –  on opposite sides of fjord since 1582, according to local historians. It’s just a 30-minute crossing, but it’s a vital link for locals. In an average year, these ferries, run by a company called Basto Fosen, transport about 1.8 million vehicles and almost four million passengers anxious to avoid the city’s heavy traffic.

It is Norway’s busiest ferry connection. As DNV GL – the classification society – puts it: “The ferries are a constant: a symbol of reliability, stability and trust.”

But reliable and trustworthy as they are, these crossings were diesel-driven. The Basto Electric, however, heralds a new era. At 144 metres long, she is the world’s largest all-electric ferry and can transport up to 200 cars, 24 big trucks and 600 passengers, all borne along by a 7 200 kW battery system.

By 2022 when the company converts two more diesel-powered vessels to all-electric propulsion, the fjord will be quieter and the air will be cleaner. According to DNV GL, the three ferries will slash diesel consumption by six million litres a year in what can only be seen as a portent of things to come in global shipping as the power of batteries continues to grow in ways that few believed possible even a decade ago.

Bastø Electric is a paradigm shift for the route, the shipowner and arguably the wider passenger ship segment in Norway and beyond,” foresees the classification society.

And having written many articles about the electrification of shipping and talked recently with dozens of people within the industry, I can only agree. This is, literally, a quiet revolution. Because the world is much more interested in electric vehicles, the rapid advances in battery-powered shipping have received relatively little attention.

Shipping is a notoriously conservative industry, but it is becoming excited by the potential of electrification, with good reason. As experts point out, it offers huge advantages over diesel-powered propulsion because it is more responsive, more robust, easier to maintain, more reliable because batteries offer more backup, quieter, and of course, cleaner.

So what’s not to like? Well, batteries can catch fire but then so do engine rooms.

Even sceptics can see that the advantages of batteries over fossil fuels become more compelling as they continue to pack more punch for their weight. The latest Blue Whale system developed by Norwegian manufacturer Corvus Energy delivers three and a half times more energy – up from 545 kwh to 1 892 kwh – than its predecessor. It will be installed shortly on a Canadian roll-on, roll-off ferry plying the Salish Sea off British Columbia. Although the system won’t be powerful enough to drive the entire ship in normal operations, it will be able to do so for short periods.

AIDAperla leaves the Port of Hamburg, Germany

Giant cruise ships will soon switch to battery-powered propulsion in ecologically sensitive waters as well as to run some shore operations. One vessel, the 300 metre-long AIDAperla, will this summer go into “silent sailing” mode by virtue of a 10 megawatt battery pack, the most powerful in a passenger ship anywhere. Although these floating hotels can only ghost along under pure battery power – at least for the present, silent sailing is a winner with passengers who, after all, aren’t in a hurry.

Other sectors of shipping have seen the light. Until now, confined mainly to passenger ships, battery power will soon revolutionise that snub-nosed workhorse of the ports, the tugboat. Canada-headquartered naval architect Robert Allan Ltd has unveiled all-electric designs with the power of diesel-fuelled ones – but with none of the pollution. Small though it is, the typical harbour tug pumps out a lot of CO₂ – about 1 700 tonnes a year – which is equivalent to the emissions of more than 300 cars. Thus, as Robert Allan predicts, electric tugs have the potential to clean up some of the world’s busiest marine hubs.

Tugs at work in port

And in Japan, a consortium of companies has thrown its weight behind the development of the world’s first all-electric tanker, a 62 metre-long vessel to be launched in early 2022. Demonstrably good for the environment, the ship will also be congenial for the crew because the vibration is much reduced.

The global fleet of all-electric or hybrid-powered vessels of all kinds currently numbers around 250, if vessels in operation and on order are included. And it’s growing almost by the month. As the vast global fleet of inner-city ferries, for instance, falls due for replacement, all-electric power has become the default option. Rotterdam is converting its water taxis to battery power and Kiel is doing the same with the ferries that work the local fjord as part of the authorities’ pledge to become a CO2-free city by 2050.

The hybrid electric Gaarden ferry on the Kiel Fjord, Germany

Historically speaking, battery-powered ferries aren’t new. Since 1909, in a remarkable technological feat of the time, all-electric passenger boats have sailed the pristine waters of the Konigsee in Germany. But it was the Nordic countries that took zero-emission propulsion into the 21st century under a 45-year-old cooperative initiative that is now led by Oslo-based Nordic Energy Research. As a study by the International Transport Forum called Navigating Towards Cleaner Maritime Shipping noted in late 2020: “It is an approach that holds many lessons for shipping nations seeking to decarbonise their fleet as quickly as possible.”

It’s a fair assumption though that not even the founders of this initiative expected to see an all-electric, 144 metre-long ferry on the Oslo fjord as soon as 2021.


Selwyn Parker is an independent author and journalist who writes for a wide range of publications on transport and related technology in all its forms.

See more ITF work on maritime transport

Women-only ride-hailing: new data inspires the movement

More ride-hailing companies are offering women-centred services, but do they get women on the road?

By Alexa Roscoe, Disruptive Technology Lead, International Finance Corporation

The next time you open your favourite ride-hailing app, you may find a surprising feature: the option to choose a woman driver or rider.

Safety is a determining factor when women decide how, when, or if to drive and travel. In the face of widespread harassment in the transport sector, social mores restricting women’s mobility, and overall market demand, sector leaders like Bolt, Didi, and Uber are increasingly adopting women-centred products. This surge begs the question: Do these services succeed in supporting women?

There has been a rapid expansion of women-only options in ride-hailing…  

Last year, IFC published the first research on women-centred services in ride-hailing, interviewing more than 30 companies and identifying seven different active models of women-centred ride-hailing services. The paper explored whether gender-segregated transport, long a topic of heated debate in mass transit, increases women’s mobility and participation in ride-hailing- or whether it just reinforces existing barriers.

Since the report’s publication, services have scaled significantly, growing from pilots to formalised products active across multiple countries. Uber extended its “Women Rider Preference” product from Saudi Arabia to 11 countries in Latin America and Africa, recently extending it to drivers who identify as non-binary as well.  Didi, which in IFC’s initial report described using “Algorithmic Prioritisation” in China to connect women drivers and riders automatically, launched Didi Mujer (Didi Woman), giving women drivers the option to match only women riders in select markets. Most recently, Bolt launched a “Women-only” feature, now active in five countries, which takes a slightly different approach, allowing riders to request matches with women drivers rather than the reverse.

Rapid scaling of women-centred products – even in the face of a global pandemic – has brought them into the mainstream, making it increasingly essential to explore their impact.  

…but do they really open up opportunities for women?

Women-centred services have shown market demand across a remarkably diverse range of contexts. Previously, IFC’s six-country study found that these services would boost women’s use of ride-hailing across locations, particularly when travelling at night, alone, or in insecure areas. In Sri Lanka, 90 per cent of women PickMe riders would like to choose the gender of their drivers, and 25 per cent would be willing to pay a premium to do so.  

Yet confirming if these services succeed in getting women to work in ride-hailing is more complex. Following the legalisation of women’s driving in Saudi Arabia, Uber data shows many women started out by using the “Women Rider Preference” feature exclusively, but gradually transitioned into the main app.  Similarly, in Latin America one in five women who use the feature use it 90 per cent of the time. This suggests that segregated services could serve as a bridge for women into a sector in which they might not otherwise consider working.

Equally important, more than half of drivers who used the option in Brazil drove more overall and at night, when women drivers are least likely to be on the road but demand for rides is higher. This means the product has the potential to increase incomes by helping women work more, and more profitable, hours. As of June 2021, “Women Rider Preference” users had completed over 7 million trips.

Bolt also reported promising data for the first six months of the launch of its “Women-only” option, telling IFC that availability of women drivers increased by as much as 66 per cent in active markets. The feature also seems to be linked with higher trip completion rates for women, addressing a common challenge where men cancel their ride when assigned a woman driver. Globally, women drivers have an average 4.9/5.0 service rating, making them eligible for performance bonuses. As Bolt Regional Director for Africa and the Middle East, Paddy Partridge, noted “Women riders and drivers are essential to the advancement of the ride-hailing industry. The success of these “Women-only” categories proves that the more deliberate inclusion of women contributes to the growth and sustainability of the ride-hailing sector.”

Detours ahead?

Even in the face of strong demand, companies face significant operational hurdles. For instance, matching women drivers, who remain a minority across contexts, with women riders can mean that few drivers serve a large population, potentially decreasing driver incomes and increasing rider wait times. A homogenous user base can also mean dramatic fluctuations in supply and demand: in the early stages of their launch, founders of Egypt-based Fyonka couldn’t understand why they faced a sudden drop-off in driver availability- until they realised many women were at home helping their children prepare for upcoming exams.  

Successful companies intentionally exceed industry standards related to training, social norms, and security. For instance, Ghana’s LadyBird Logistics, a long-distance trucking company, sends out women drivers in pairs and arranges for safe overnight lodging.  Several others offer dedicated training or ensure family buy-in to help build the pipeline of recruits.

Getting women on the road

Women remain a small fraction of transport providers everywhere in the world. Transport gaps for riders reduce women’s labour force participation by more than 15 percentage points. Tackling both challenges means making all forms of transport affordable, accessible, and safe for women. Neither gender-segregated transport nor ride-hailing alone will ever be sole solutions, but as markets reopen and more ride-hailing companies recognise the need to better serve women as drivers and riders, we need to continue to look for new solutions from across the sector and to keep alive the debate on how best to serve women in ride-hailing.

For further discussion and case studies, see “Gender-Segregated Transport in Ride-hailing: Navigating the Debate” and join the conversation using #DrivingEquality. For more on women and ride-hailing, check out the resources below:

See more on ITF’s work on Gender in Transport, including the latest project on developing a Gender Analysis Toolkit for Transport Policies