MARAD’s port automation query draws tepid response

MARAD’s port automation query draws tepid response

MARAD indicated it is interested in broadly researching automation as it applies to vehicles, trains, vessels, infrastructure, and equipment as ports are nodes where freight industries intersect. Photo credit:

A request for information (RFI) by the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) on what it can do to support the implementation of automated systems in ports has drawn less-than-enthusiastic responses from labor unions and a transportation planning firm.

MARAD’s RFI, which closed Monday, comes as longshore unions in North America continue to address the nettlesome issue of how container terminal operators who seek to improve efficiency and reduce labor costs can automate cargo handling without severely impacting dockworker jobs and the economic health of the surrounding communities.

MARAD indicated it is interested in broadly researching automation as it applies to vehicles, trains, vessels, infrastructure, and equipment as ports are nodes where freight industries intersect. The agency proposed researching issues related to the safety effects, opportunities, challenges, and impacts of automated transportation in a port environment to inform potential research projects.

A statement by 10 unions, including the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), concluded that MARAD’s RFI focuses solely on the technical aspects of automation. 

“This is too narrow in its scope for a governmental agency whose actions should take into consideration the impact on the human element, and the welfare of society as a whole,” the unions said in their filing to MARAD.

Comments submitted by Automated Terminal Systems (ATS), which designs systems for marine terminals and intermodal facilities, indicated it sees no real benefit in involvement by a government agency in developing an automated port taxonomy.

Such standards could result in marine terminal operators and vendors “trying to align their operations or product to meet the requirements of the taxonomy rather than real-world operations,” ATS stated in its response to the RFI.

Automation is accelerating

A report released last month by Moody’s Investors Service noted that the move by terminal operators to automate is accelerating, with 46 terminals in 22 countries having implemented fully or semi-automated cargo-handling operations.

Daniel Reiss, president of ATS, noted that in most instances it is individual terminal operators, rather than port authorities, that decide to automate cargo-handling activities, and political involvement can slow down the process. 

“The prime example in this case is the Port of Los Angeles responding to political pressure from the ILWU and the LA County board of supervisors to prevent the introduction of limited automation on Pier 400,” Reiss said.

MARAD posted 14 questions on the pros and cons and best practices involved in port-related automation, the obstacles to automation, the impact of automation on the existing port industry workforce, safety implications of automation, and the regulatory environment affecting potential and existing automation.

The labor unions’ response cited academic analyses of the impact of automation and robotics on the manufacturing, transportation, distribution, and service industries. They concluded that automation could reduce the existing labor force by 47 percent over the next two decades.

“Some estimates are even higher. It has the potential to disrupt social, economic, and political systems,” the unions stated. 

The unions listed several potential responses by employers and political leaders that could be beneficial, including a system of education and retraining of workers to develop new skills and worker mobility. The recently signed waterfront contract covering the ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert, and the agreement reached by APM Terminals and the ILWU, include provisions for more robust training programs.

ATS listed the main obstacles to automation as “union and political opposition, terminal operator managements’ fear of loss of revenue in the event of a strike by waterfront unions, and the lack of understanding among politicians of the role of automation in terminal operations.” It also stated that “burdensome regulations and socio-economic policies that are politically-driven rather than economic and process-driven” are interfering with the introduction of automation in some cases.

ATS listed the benefits of automation as improved safety, lowered ambient noise from electric cranes, improved air and water quality, and significant reductions in harmful emissions on neighboring communities as diesel cargo-handling equipment is replaced by electric and battery-powered equipment.  

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at and follow him on Twitter: @billmongelluzzo.