Should Ports Get Smart?

Ports are trying to become smarter. At least, that’s what I took away from a recent conference in Seoul, where I spoke at a government-sponsored forum on smart ports.

Smartness involves linking cranes, guided vehicles, straddle carriers, and perhaps even ships and drayage trucks with 5G communications and then employing artificial intelligence to coordinate their work. Smartness could potentially extend into other areas as well, such monitoring the weather to revamp terminal operations as a storm approaches.

These technological advances are supposed to improve productivity and worker safety, make better use of terminal space and equipment, and reduce energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions. All of these goals are desirable. But in the haste to make ports smarter, a few things may not be receiving the attention they should.

One is that smartness isn’t a sure-fire moneysaver. While a terminal may save by hiring fewer dock workers and making better use of assets, paying consultants to develop and maintain the smart system involves both large front-end outlays and ongoing costs. Extending the system to ships in port could dramatically increase complexity, but excluding ships may limit effectiveness. Cybersecurity will be a constant issue; already, the U.S. Maritime Administration is studying whether the Chinese government has hidden control over the thousands of Chinese-made ship-to-shore cranes in use around the world, and the possibility that a single hack into a smart network could cripple every crane in an entire container terminal is enough to keep terminal managers up at night.

But perhaps the most important question about smart ports is rarely asked: how will shippers be better off? Terminals will try to recover the cost of smart systems from vessel operators, who will pass it along to exporters and importers. Some shippers may benefit if the system moves their cargo through the terminal more quickly, but those shipping low-value goods may not care about speed while being very sensitive to additional costs. If making ports smarter doesn’t save them money, it won’t look so smart.


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