On one end of a dock at America's busiest port, tractor-trailers haul containers through dense, stop-and-go traffic. Sometimes they collide. Sometimes the drivers must wait, diesel engines idling, as piles are unstacked to find the specific container they need. A few hundred yards away, advanced algorithms select the most efficient pathway for autonomous carriers to move containers across the wharf. The four-story-high orange machines cradle their cargo, passing quietly within inches of one another, at speeds of up to 18 mph, but never touching. Self-driving cranes on tracks stack the containers and then deliver them to waiting trucks and trains with minimal human intervention. TraPac LLC's Los Angeles marine-cargo facility demonstrates how autonomous technology could revolutionise freight transport as much as or more than personal travel. TraPac's equipment doubles the speed of loading and unloading ships, saving money and boosting profits. Their impact is rivaling that of containerisation, which eliminated most manual sorting and warehousing on docks after World War II. "Self-driving won't just rebuild the current freight system, it will create a whole new way of thinking about it,'' said Larry Burns, a former research and development chief at General Motors and now a consultant at Alphabet's Google unit. "It will happen sooner with goods movements than with personal transportation, because the economics are crystal clear,'' Burns said. Commercial shipments currently produce half the state's toxic diesel-soot emissions. More automation also could help Gov. Jerry Brown, D, achieve his goal of zero-emission freight movement in California. Commercial shipments currently produce half the state's toxic diesel-soot emissions and 45 percent of the nitrogen oxide that plague Los Angeles with the nation's worst smog. In Long Beach, where most residents are Hispanic, black or Asian, an estimated 15 percent of the children have asthma, six percentage points higher than the national average, according to a community coalition report. The state's Air Resources Board is scheduled to release a draft Sustainable Freight action plan on April 29. It will encompass new regulations on vehicles and fuels, as well as subsidies for new infrastructure, communications and operating procedures, according to ARB Chairman Mary Nichols.
This may be the most difficult and complex challenge we've ever undertaken. We're trying to change the entire freight system.Brown wants 100,000 zero-emission freight-hauling machines in California by 2030, according to recent ARB workshop presentations. These could include self-driving cranes and carriers like those at TraPac. Brown also could subsidise fuel-saving alternatives, such as semi-autonomous trucks, which were recently tested in Europe. If they're clean enough, he may give them preferential access to freeways and docks. He also may promote Uber-like services to find loads for empty or half-empty trucks and is considering a per-container cap on pollutants and greenhouse gases at each terminal. "This may be the most difficult and complex challenge we've ever undertaken,'' said Dan Sperling, a member of the ARB and professor of civil engineering and environmental science at the University of California, Davis. "We're trying to change the entire freight system.'' The ports of Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland handle 40 percent of U.S. container traffic and converting them to all-electric equipment that's often self-driving will cost $35 billion in the next 30 years, compared with $7 billion to replace existing technologies, according to a December study for the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association. Many terminal operators-plagued by plunging freight rates-won't be able to afford the transition without government help, said Mike Jacob, a PMSA vice president.
If I have to lose a year or two at the end of my time in this world so I can send my kid to school, I have no problem with that.At Los Angeles and Long Beach, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union refused to formally accept self-driving and automated technologies until 2008. Since then, none of the ILWU's 14,000 full-time West Coast dock members have lost jobs, but 10,000 contingent workers are called less often, said Jim McKenna, president of the Pacific Maritime Association, an employer group. He declined to say how much less. But it's enough that ILWU leaders are no more enthusiastic about having Jerry Brown promote autonomous driving in the name of clean air today, as they were about having corporations promote containerisation in the name of efficiency half a century ago. "If I have to lose a year or two at the end of my time in this world so I can send my kid to school, I have no problem with that,'' said Mondo Porras, vice president of ILWU Local 13 in San Pedro. "Efficiency and the environment go hand in hand." If Brown wants to clean the air by making ports more efficient, Porras said, he should stop Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other retailers from using them as rent-free storage lots. Such finger-pointing is inevitable, said Jon Slangerup, chief executive of the Port of Long Beach, because no single entity has door-to-door responsibility for freight that's passing through-like an airport with no air-traffic control system. With his Sustainable Freight plan, Brown is offering himself as the controller the ports need. And he's trying to harness the increased efficiency of self-driving to encourage everyone-shippers, terminal operators, union workers and truckers-to go along.