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Jun 6, 2019

Automation could make ports more efficient and eco-friendly, but with fewer jobs

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Dockworkers are fighting the use of more unmanned vehicles at the Port of Los Angeles.

More consumer goods come into the Port of Los Angeles than any other U.S. port. A plan to use more unmanned, electric vehicles would bring major changes to the port and its surrounding economy. Union workers are pushing back hard against automation. At a protest this spring, workers held signs that said: “Robots don’t pay taxes” and “Where will American labor work?” But port owners say automated technology will cut costs in Los Angeles and help California meet its ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gases. Today, the port is noisy and polluted, a massive system of ships, cranes and more than 1,700 trucks passing through a day, most of them diesel. Automation could change that picture.

Amy Choi talked with Romy Varghese, reporter for Bloomberg, about what an automated Port of Los Angeles could look like. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Romy Varghese: It becomes almost silent when you see some of these automated vehicles in action. Under the plan that’s being considered for the Port of LA for Pier 400, which is the biggest shipping terminal in North America by the way, is to have this automated straddle carrier. This one big piece of equipment would basically do the job of three machines. That includes moving these huge containers around in a stack and being able to put them on the back of a truck.

American ports have definitely been slower to adopt this technology. A lot has to do with the power of the local unions.

Romy Varghese

Amy Choi: Do you have a sense of how this would impact the local economy?

Varghese: I know for the Port of LA, the local community is called San Pedro. It’s a very blue-collar community that has really relied on the ports for its economy. Honestly, the ports in general are responsible for much of the economic activity in Southern California. It’s a huge driver of jobs, both indirect and direct jobs. I talked to a bar owner, and about half her patrons are longshoremen. She’s worried. “Well, if there are fewer of them,” she says, “I’m going to have to cut back my employee hours. I’m not going to be able to hire bands to come four nights of the week.”

The folks who are promoting automation are saying, “Look, we need to stay competitive. We are losing market share to East Coast and Gulf Coast ports because they’re more nimble, and our ports in California are just more expensive.” You have the micro impact and then the macro impact.

Choi: Your reporting revealed that there are 44 automated or semi-automated ports around the world, but there are only five in the U.S. It seems that that’s low. Have we been slower to adopt this technology?

Varghese: American ports have definitely been slower to adopt this technology. A lot has to do with the power of the local unions. In Asia, a lot of these ports are newer, so they’re using the most up-to-date technology. But generally American ports have been lagging in automation because of the concerns of how this affects local jobs.

Related links: more insight from Amy Choi

The need to go green in LA is real. Public radio station KCRW reported that the Los Angeles and Long Beach metropolitan area was ranked the worst in the nation for ozone pollution for the 19th time by the American Lung Association. Some of the causes? Cars, cars, cars and the ports.

On the automation tip, The Wall Street Journal had an article about a new study by McKinsey saying automation will hit both male and female laborers equally. It’s not just men working in manufacturing who are at risk of losing their jobs to automation, but up to 100 million women losing their jobs globally by 2030, primarily in clerical and customer service jobs. While both men and women may lose jobs at equal pace due to automation, women will be less likely to have the opportunity to get the training required to get new jobs.

Finally, we might not be ready for all this automation. Urban planning scholars surveyed 120 cities in America about their preparedness for self-driving cars, and only a tiny fraction of them have comprehensive plans for autonomous vehicles. One of them is Los Angeles. It has an “Urban Mobility in a Digital Age” plan. That includes ideas about dedicated lanes for autonomous cars, municipal fleets of robotic buses and shuttles, and vehicle data-sharing relationships so that the city can manage traffic flow.

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