Next year, there won’t be many people working on the wharf at the new Middle Harbor terminal on California’s San Pedro Bay. Remote-controlled cranes towering 165 feet high will pluck containers from vessels’ holds, and driverless trucks guided by magnets embedded in the asphalt will carry cargo to robotic hoists in a sorting yard.
"We need to redefine normal," said Noel Hacegaba, a managing director of the Port of Long Beach, where the Middle Harbor terminal is nearing completion of a $1.3 billion modernization by operator Orient Overseas International Ltd. "We are concerned when we look at the numbers. When you’re the biggest, you have a target on your back."
The automated future is part of an efficiency drive at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. They’ve been losing market share for almost 10 years to port rivals such as Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and Savannah, Georgia. It takes four days or less to unload a ship at those ports and as many as six in Southern California.
"I don’t see that we can move increased volumes of containers with the current model," said Chris Parvin, executive vice president of marine operations for Mediterranean Shipping Co., which owns 465 ships and leases berthing space at Long Beach. "The only way we can do that is with increased efficiency, which is dependent on automation and technology."
The Port of Los Angeles recently put an automated terminal into service, and along with the adjacent Port of Long Beach, is spending $3.7 billion to boost capacity and unravel backups keep ships waiting in the bay and trucks idling on land.
Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, said rising volumes wouldn’t be enough - especially considering that about a third of the cargo passing through the ports is what he called discretionary, meaning shippers could easily choose another path into the U.S.
"In any business you want to grow with or in advance of the marketplace," Seroka said. "Loss of market share concerns us. We have to heighten our capability."
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