At America’s Busiest Port, Robot Longshoremen Are the New Contenders

Tim Rue/Bloomberg News
Fully automated AutoStrads pick-up shipping containers to be moved at the TraPac shipping terminal at the Port of Los Angeles. Tim Rue/Bloomberg News

On one end of a dock at America’s busiest port, tractor-trailers haul containers through dense, stop-and-go traffic. Sometimes they collide. Sometimes the drivers must wait, diesel engines idling, as piles are unstacked to find the specific container they need.

A few hundred yards away, advanced algorithms select the most efficient pathway for autonomous carriers to move containers across the wharf. The four-story-high orange machines cradle their cargo, passing quietly within inches of each other, at speeds as fast as 18 miles an hour, but never touching. Self-driving cranes on tracks stack the containers and then deliver them to waiting trucks and trains with minimal human intervention.

TraPac’s Los Angeles marine-cargo facility demonstrates how autonomous technology could revolutionize freight transport as much as, or more than, personal travel. TraPac’s equipment doubles the speed of loading and unloading ships, saving money and boosting profits. Their impact is rivaling that of containerization, which eliminated most manual sorting and warehousing on docks after World War II.

"Self-driving won’t just rebuild the current freight system, it will create a whole new way of thinking about it," said Larry Burns, a former research and development chief at General Motors Co. and now a consultant at Alphabet Inc.’s Google unit.

"It will happen sooner with goods movements than with personal transportation, because the economics are crystal clear."

Commercial shipments currently produce half the state’s toxic diesel-soot emissions.

More automation also could help Governor Jerry Brown achieve his goal of zero-emission freight movement in California. Commercial shipments currently produce half the state’s toxic diesel-soot emissions and 45% of the nitrogen oxide that plague Los Angeles with the nation’s worst smog. In Long Beach, where most residents are Hispanic, black or Asian, an estimated 15% of the children have asthma, six percentage points higher than the national average, according to a community coalition report.

The state’s Air Resources Board is scheduled to release a draft Sustainable Freight action plan on April 29. It will encompass new regulations on vehicles and fuels, as well as subsidies for new infrastructure, communications and operating procedures, according to ARB Chairman Mary Nichols.

AutoStrad picks up shipping containers and delivers them to various destinations within the TraPac terminal in the Port of Los Angeles.

Brown wants 100,000 zero-emission freight-hauling machines in California by 2030, according to recent ARB workshop presentations. These could include self-driving cranes and carriers such as those at TraPac. Brown also could subsidize fuel-saving alternatives, such as semi-autonomous trucks, which were recently tested in Europe. He may promote Uber-like services to find loads for empty or half-empty trucks. He’s also considering a per-container cap on pollutants and greenhouse gases at each terminal.

"This may be the most difficult and complex challenge we’ve ever undertaken," said Dan Sperling, a member of the ARB and professor of civil engineering and environmental science at the University of California, Davis. "We’re trying to change the entire freight system."

The ports of Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland handle 40% of U.S. container traffic and converting them to all-electric equipment that’s often self-driving will cost $35 billion in the next 30 years, compared with $7 billion to replace existing technologies, according to a December study for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. Many terminal operators — plagued by plunging freight rates — won’t be able to afford the transition without government help, said Mike Jacob, a PMSA vice president.

"We potentially are talking about tens of billions to hundreds of billions of dollars."

"I’m cautiously optimistic that so far, the administration has shown a willingness to address the question of how to creatively fund and finance these future technologies," he said.

Nichols said she knows where to look for money. For the first time ever, she said, Brown is insisting that the state government bring all its purchasing power to bear on the single goal of Sustainable Freight. The California Department of Transportation won’t approve state and federally funded highway projects, for example, without checking with the ARB on the air-quality impact.

"We potentially are talking about tens of billions to hundreds of billions of dollars," Nichols said.

As the carriers scamper back and forth across the dock, each device changes direction independently from the rest.

The state has already contributed grants for battery-powered tractor-trailers at a new automated facility in the Long Beach Container Terminal, which began receiving cargo earlier this month. The port is sharing the $2 billion redevelopment cost with the shipper, Orient Overseas Container Line, a subsidiary of Hong Kong-based Orient Overseas International Ltd. It will recover its investment as the shipper makes payments on its 40-year terminal lease, according to Art Wong, spokesman for the Port of Long Beach.

The Port of Los Angeles and TraPac, a unit of Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Ltd., are investing $693 million in four dozen self-driving cranes and automated carriers, plus related infrastructure. Of this amount, $63 million comes from the state of California. As the carriers scamper back and forth across the dock, each device changes direction independently from the rest — without apparent need for human help. A few dozen people watch and monitor in faraway control rooms. On the wharf itself, TraPac uses people only to run the cranes that unload ships and to drop containers the last few feet onto waiting trucks and trains.

To take full advantage of the new equipment, TraPac President Frank Pisano needs to help speed containers away from the docks, so he’s implementing an appointment system for truckers. They often arrive unannounced and then wait as port employees scout around for their container. This waiting is becoming intolerable for drivers as congestion grows. By 2040, regional container traffic could almost triple to 41.1 million 20-foot equivalent units from 15.3 million last year, according to a recent forecast commissioned by the ports.

As they grapple with this onslaught, the California facilities lag far behind some counterparts in adopting autonomous technology. Since 1993, Rotterdam has used precursors to the self-driving equipment Pisano is installing. Europe’s largest facility, it now has five fully automated deep-sea terminals.

At Los Angeles and Long Beach, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union refused to formally accept self-driving and automated technologies until 2008. Since then, none of ILWU’s 14,000 full-time West Coast dock members have lost jobs, but 10,000 contingent workers are called less often, said Jim McKenna, president of the Pacific Maritime Association, an employer group. He declined to say how much less. But it’s enough that ILWU leaders are no more enthusiastic about having Jerry Brown promote autonomous driving in the name of clean air today, as they were about having corporations promote containerization in the name of efficiency half a century ago.

"If I have to lose a year or two at the end of my time in this world so I can send my kid to school, I have no problem with that,’’ said Mondo Porras, vice president of ILWU Local 13 in San Pedro.

"Efficiency and the environment go hand in hand."

If Brown wants to clean the air by making ports more efficient, Porras said, he should stop Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other retailers from using them as rent-free storage lots.

Such finger-pointing is inevitable, said Jon Slangerup, chief executive of the Port of Long Beach, because no single entity has door-to-door responsibility for freight that’s passing through — like an airport with no air-traffic control system.

With his Sustainable Freight plan, Brown is offering himself as the controller the ports need. And he’s trying to harness the increased efficiency of self-driving to encourage everyone — shippers, terminal operators, union workers and truckers — to go along.

"Efficiency and the environment go hand in hand," Slangerup said. "They’re two sides of the same coin."