Automation, I’ve been led to believe from discussions with several management sources, was not a big issue in the contract talks between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Pacific Maritime Association during the past year. They tell me they feel confident about their ability to automate container terminals because of language agreed to in their 2002 and 2008 contracts with the ILWU.
Still, it will be interesting to see if all goes smoothly as West Coast terminals—led by OOCL’s Long Beach Container Terminal and MOL’s TraPac terminal in the Port of Los Angeles—implement automation.
The morning after the tentative agreement between the PMA and ILWU was announced, I happened to catch a discussion about robotics on KQED’s program “California Report” and decided to call up one of the participants, Silicon Valley technology forecaster Paul Saffo.
“The lesson of the last 100 years of labor is that automation is inevitable and the more obdurate labor is, the sooner it gets cut out,” he told me.
Robotic transportation is “moving very quickly,” he added. “The places where we’re going to see it in logistics initially is in closed industrial parks—any space where somebody controls who enters and leaves the space.”
Australian mining companies are already experimenting with enormous robotic-driven mining dump trucks.
Both the OOCL Middle Harbor and TraPac terminals will use automated vehicles to transport containers from quay cranes to the container yard equipped with automated, rail-mounted stacking cranes.
Saffo believes the ILWU “overplayed its hand.” While the new contract may marginally improve the lives of 20,000 union members, the confrontation between the union and employers caused “wildly disproportionate” harm to many more workers—be they farmers who could not get crops to overseas markets or retailers who didn’t get merchandise delivered on time.
“The shipping companies, having gone through this, of course, they would be crazy to not say ‘where can we strategically deploy automation to replace the worker bottlenecks?’
“So a lot of people say ‘let’s go to lights out and have fully automated cargo handling.’ That is a long-term trend, but that’s not something that’s going to happen in the next five years,” Saffo said.
The push to reduce pollution in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach by using more electric vehicles, he said, will also make it easier to roboticize operations.
“The long-term trend is clear and inevitable, the only question is timing. But we’re heading toward there being ever fewer humans in the cargo-handling process. While recent technology events are accelerating this, it goes all the way back to the mid-1960s and the creation of the intermodal cargo container standard. That was a key foundational change. The moment you get stuff modular it makes it so much easier to roboticize,” Saffo said.
Elsewhere, he expects to see automation “around the edges.”
Robotic drones used for marine surveying, he said, are coming just as fast as flying drones.
While Amazon’s drones for home delivery are seen as pie in the sky by some, Saffo said drones are today being used to smuggle drugs across the Mexico-U.S. border.
“People have no idea how much that’s happening right now,” he said.
Drones are also used legitimately. Appropriately, the drone manufacturer DIY Drones is already using them to fly parts between its factories in Tijuana, Saffo said.
There are weight limitations and they are not going to replace truck drivers anytime soon, but “once companies get used to using robotic applications they are going to get comfortable using it in lots of spaces,” he said.
“The way to think about automation and transport is that it’s a gradually rising tide,” he said. “It’s not all of a sudden an 18-wheeler is going to be fully automated and driven by a robot. It’s that we’re adding more and more automation to the process,” Saffo said. Systems in a truck might guard against distracted driving, drivers falling asleep, or preventing a truck from driving under a low bridge.
Cadillac’s Super Cruise, reportedly to be rolled out in the 2017 model year, is a case in point, he said. The car will reportedly be fully automatic in certain circumstances, able to hold its position in a traffic lane and keep automatically spaced between the vehicle in front of it.
“Those things are just going to keep being added as a feature set in the vehicles, and at some point you say, ‘hey, wait a second, it’s a robot running this thing,’” he said.
Are robotic airplanes or ships in the future?
“What people don’t realize is they are already flying in robotically controlled planes,” Saffo said. When a plane such as an Airbus 340 or Boeing 777 is at cruising altitude, he said, it’s not being flown by a human, but by a computer that is optimizing for speed, angle of attack, and fuel efficiency.
“No human being is capable of managing that,” he said. “You have to hand it to a robot.” Saffo noted some in the airline industry are pushing to get rid of the co-pilot.
He said there is a steadily rising tide of automation on ships both for navigation and other functions, and the industry will have to determine not only if automated ships are cheaper, but if they are safer.
“What’s clearly safest of all is giving a robot partner for the crew,” he said. “Because the robot is looking out for anomalies and crash detection and the like, and warning people.”
There’s a real danger in over-reliance on automation, and Saffo noted NASA has developed software interfaces in which a computer “keeps asking the human for advice and to tweak this and to touch that even though it doesn’t need it, in order to keep the human in a forward-leaning mode.”
This column was published in the April 2015 issue of American Shipper.