Investment rating agency Moody's expects more automated container terminals will be built over the next decade given their "competitive advantages".
"Automation can lower operating costs, increase throughput capacity, improve service reliability and reduce emissions. However, significant capital investment, uncertain productivity gains, potential disruptions to active operations and labour concerns are key risks."
Moody's lists 48 terminals worldwide that are fully or partially automated. Hutchison Port Holdings' ECT Delta terminal in Rotterdam was the first to be automated in 1993, and the newest terminal listed is Tuas Mega Terminal in Singapore that PSA plans to open in phases, starting from 2021.
The list comprises 18 fully automated terminals, including the TraPac terminal in Los Angeles and Long Beach Container Terminal, plus 30 semi-automated terminals, including three in the US: the Virginia International Gateway Terminal and Norfolk International Terminal in Virginia, and the GCT Bayonne terminal in New Jersey, reported American Shipper.
In the US the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) will protest at the Los Angeles City Council to persuade it to veto a permit given to Maersk's APM Terminals to build infrastructure to operate driverless straddle carriers.
Said Moody's: "A signature feature of the 2018 International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) contract was the prohibition on fully automated container terminals at ports on the east coast and Gulf Coast."
Labour is half the cost of container terminals and "automated terminals have 40 per cent to 70 per cent lower labour requirements, said Moody's, which noted that "in the US, port labour costs have historically risen annually in excess of inflation and continue to do so".
It said the biggest savings can be reaped through the elimination of terminal truck drivers, container handlers and clerks and supervisors.
With land at many port locations in scarce supply, automation offers a way to expand "vertically without impairing productivity. By converting to a semi-automated system at Norfolk International Terminal South, the Virginia Port Authority will increase capacity by 47 per cent on the same footprint, said the report.
"The near-zero-emission nature of the handling equipment used at fully automated terminals results in significantly lower emissions compared with conventional terminals. Key equipment at automated terminals runs largely on electric power instead of diesel fuel, while the terminal design minimizes the amount of travel (and idling) for horizontal transport and over-the-road trucks," Moody's said.