Behind the TechnologyNews

POLA’s digital tracking system gets ready to launch

 ( Photo: Shutterstock )
( Photo: Shutterstock )

To say Weston LeBar is enthusiastic about the Port of Los Angeles’s new online cargo tracking system is a bit of an understatement.

“We feel this is the single greatest thing that has happened to our industry and will be for decades to come,” said LeBar, executive director of the Harbor Trucking Association.

But LeBar, along with other port users, has lingering concerns about the system, known as the Port Optimizer. Several years and $13 million in the making, the Optimizer collects and shares cargo data that BCOs, truckers, railroads, equipment providers and other stakeholders need to get shipments to the right place once they arrive.

The data shows up on a single electronic platform.

A one-stop navigation center is a far cry from the cumbersome and siloed system port users have to deal with today. Truckers typically have 40 websites open at a time, LeBar said, and often don’t know what’s coming on dock until the vessel has already arrived.

There are obvious benefits to digitizing port operations, and providing users with advance, real-time warning about cargo arrivals is one of them. But the big unknown is whether carriers and terminals are actually going to make their data available to everyone.

“We are an industry that needs disruption but does not easily embrace disruption,” LeBar said. “I’m worried about stakeholder participation. We need people to test the waters.”

POLA handled a record 9.3 million TEUs last year, and is facing huge pressures to reduce congestion and boost productivity. Digitization is one of the relief valves.

The Port and GE Transportation piloted the Optimizer last year with a few carriers and aim to have the system up and running across the full complex by the first quarter of 2019.

The technology ask alone is huge. But the big hurdle, Port business development manager Chris Chase agreed, is getting buy in from stakeholders. The user interface looks great, he said. “But unless it has the whole port, it’s not worth it.”

To boost participation, the Port in September started offering financial incentives to shipping lines and terminals. The incentive is $10 per TEU for each unit. The maximum the port will grant through the incentives is $2 million. “We’re incentivizing to bring more cargo through the Port of Los Angeles and process that cargo more efficiently through the use of the Port Optimizer,” a spokesperson said.

Pacific International Lines is one of the last carriers to get on board. “We’re in the initial stages of sharing information with GE,”  said Dan Corrado, PIL manager for terminals and depots operations. The carrier “is always cautious,” he said. “They play things out, and try to get feedback from competitors or partners.”

Corrado said he pushed his bosses to participate “because at the end of the day, technology and what it’s done for shipping — we have to be on board or we’ll be left out in the cold. Our customers, truckers, they have to see that we’re involved in this.”

In an email, Maersk (OTCMKTS: AMKBY) spokesperson Tom Boyd said the company “welcomes any initiatives that make it easier for customers to do business with the port community.”

“The Port of LA has been an early adopter of online tracking, which is important for supply chain visibility,” Boyd said.

Maersk was one of the participants in last year’s Optimizer pilot project.

Corrado did express concern about how user-friendly the portal will be, and ho information will be processed. “We’re concerned about potential security risks,”  he said.

Corrado referred to the huge cyberattack that crippled Maersk last year, forcing the operator to temporarily shutter six container terminals.

Port Optimizer data was not jeopardized with respect to the cyber security incident.

Other port users told Freightwaves off the record that reticence about sharing information might slow momentum around the Optimizer.

Jennifer Schopfer, Vice President and General Manager of GE Transportation Transport Logistics, sent Freightwaves the following statement.

“Security is a primary consideration in the design of the platform.  The Port Optimizer is designed with ISO27001-based controls, such as data protection and retention policies, access controls and proactive monitoring in place.  In addition, we work with each data provider to explain the security protocols and how we will store and use the data, and come to agreements based on their requirements.  For end users, there will be a terms of service agreement they will agree to as they register for the portal.  We remain committed to providing a secure platform for the benefit of the broader supply chain.”

The benefits of the system outweigh the costs, Le Bar said.

“Having visibility is extremely important and has been lacking. We would love to see the industry move into a predictive proactive model instead of a reactive model, which is what we deal with today.”


UPDDATE: This article has been amended to include a statement from GE Transportation, and a clarification on the incentive program.

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Linda Baker, Staff Writer

Linda Baker is a FreightWaves staff reporter based in Portland, Oregon. Her beat includes early-stage VC, freight-tech, mobility and West Coast emissions regulations.