Ushering a New Era of Shipping: Automated Ports in China

Automotive Author: Beibei Wei Editor: Huilin Zhou Aug 26, 2022 09:07 PM (GMT+8)

The port industry has already embraced Industry 4.0 levels of digitization, interconnection, and automation. Driven by digital-driven industry transformations and innovations, automated, driverless, and partially autonomous vehicles have played an important role in transforming ports into more productive and sustainable transport hubs.

smart port

With burgeoning maritime traffic, frequency of cargo loading, movement of multi-directional trucks, the ports industry is adopting 4.0 technology to digitize and automate its management and operation activities.It is anticipated that the digitally connected ports will seamlessly connect millions of shipments in a more efficient and secure manner. To forge the digitally connected ports of the future, the unmanned ports rely on new technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), intelligent control, information management, communications and navigation, big data, and cloud computing. Driverless trucks will fundamentally transform the logistics and industrial sector, contributing to higher productivity, cost efficiency, worker safety, and less environmental pressure. Driverless trucks will fundamentally transform the logistics and industrial sector, contributing to higher productivity, cost efficiency, worker safety, and less environmental pressure.

Traditional Ports: undergo automation-oriented industrial re-structuring

Traditional terminals and ports need to go through digital transformation, informatization, and intelligence to support better labor structure, improve efficiency, and lower costs. Evidence suggests that, with the help of unmanned container trucks, the number of truck drivers can be reduced by 90% while the driver-truck ratio can be reduced from 1:1 to 1:6. Furthermore, automation can help reduce human recruitment, facilitating industry transformation from labor-intensive to technology-intensive status.

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The advancement of autonomous driving technology has reshaped the industry chain of autonomous driving in port terminals, which are manifested in the following three aspects.

First, a diverse variety of upstream companies have emerged in this field. For instance, suppliers of new types of auto parts, technologies (e.g., Lidar and millimeter-wave radar) and High-Definition (HD) maps, have become upstream players. HD map, which plays an important role in sensing the surrounding environment, is considered a prerequisite for developing autonomous driving services.

Second, these upstream entrants brought about changes to service delivery in the midstream and downstream. They provide parts and technical services to OEMs, technology solution providers, and internet companies. With the maturing of the upstream and midstream chains, the downstream market is expanding rapidly.

Last but not least, communication service operators and cloud providers participate in the entire industry chain activities. Cloud providers offer autonomous driving data, training, and simulation services for automotive manufacturers to help them quickly develop driverless products. Cloud services can seamlessly connect vehicle-side hardware platforms and ADAD systems to realize vehicle-cloud coordination.

In recent years, autonomous port transportation has been one of the core scenarios and important aspects of commercialized vehicle autonomous driving by governments, enterprises, and port managers. Port unmanned driving, featuring a rapid landing process, a profitable business pattern and tailored positioning services, is expected to achieve large-scale commercialization in the next two to three years. The commercial operation on a large scale can quickly accumulate and iterate its algorithm, engineering, and operation capabilities, which can be extended to external trucks and trunk logistics in the future.

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Trunk.Tech (Chinese: 主线科技)is an AI powered tech enterprise developing autonomous trucks for logistics and transportation. It is noted that Trunk.Tech is the first company in China to independently develop SAE Level 4 driverless trucks. Committed to the industrialization of intelligent driving technology, Trunk.Tech collaborated with logistics companies and automobile enterprises to explore the commercial landing in China’s logistics market. "Trunk.Tech is proactively establishing a broad intelligent logistics ecosystem to support autonomous trucking in China. Trunk.Tech will continuously collaborate with strategic partners to promote the R&D of digitization and intelligence as well as operate autonomous trucks on a large scale."  said by Dr. Wang from Trunk.Tech.

Development Overview and Market Trend of China's Port Autopilot Industry

Port automated driving is characterized by a closed scenario of low-speed operation and a representative scenario allowing for commercial operation of autonomous driving. As a key importer and exporter worldwide, China is attempting to promote autonomous driving that enables port logistics and enhances the construction of new-generation automated terminals.

Despite the ownership of more than 25,000 container trailers, most port terminals in China still heavily depend on traditional container trucks, with an automation penetration rate of lower than 2%. By 2025, it is anticipated that 6,000 to 7,000 L4 autonomous container trucks will come into service in China's ports, which would increase the automation penetration rate to over 20%. Some coastal container hub ports will preliminary build intelligent systems enabling comprehensive perception, internet of everything, and port-truck cooperation. China's port autopilot driving market is expected to reach more than RMB 6 billion in 2025, accounting for approximately 30% of the global market.

Although automated port driving in China is still a niche industry, it plays a vital role in the whole logistics chain from shipping to the port, trunk highway and logistics hub. Charts below that China's trunk logistics market is valued at RMB 5 trillion (USD 700 billion). In 2020, nearly half of autonomous driving investments in China targeted start-ups focusing on deployments of commercial vehicles.


Insight Analysis: supportive policies and regulatory environment


Chinese governments are actively deploying autonomous driving and smart port construction guidelines. They also demonstrate their efforts to regulate unmanned autonomous driving products as well as technical specifications and standards, expediting the development of the port autopilot industry.

In accordance with these supportive policies and plans, China will steer towards intelligent upgrading and transformation of the container ports in Xiamen, Ningbo, and Dalian, and will consecutively build automatic ports in Tianjin, Suzhou, and Beibuwan in Southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

Driven by the demand for high-efficiency port solutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, port operators have speeded up the wide application of intelligent scheduling, remote control equipment, and unmanned trailer transportation. Moreover, as these plans suggest, port authorities should focus on the development of smart logistics service platforms, and more importantly, strengthen intelligent monitoring for dangerous goods.

Intelligent Ports in China: development status, challenges, and opportunities

Since 2018, several autonomous driving solution providers have phased in applications to launch autonomous trucks for commercial trail use. It is reported that the primary scenario of autonomous port transportation accounted for 16% in the field of low-speed autonomous driving by the end of 2021, which can be attributed to the accelerated rate of smart ports' construction. Meanwhile, statistics have shown that more than 300 driverless trucks have been put into use in ports, a successful transition from technological research and development (R&D) to commercialization.


Currently, 13 ports in China have used autonomous container trucks, including Shanghai Yangshan Port, Tianjin Port, and Ningbo Zhoushan Port, presenting a "north-central-south" deployment pattern. Intelligent ports in the Circum-Bohai-Sea region are located in Shandong, Liaoning, and Tianjin. It is noted that the Qingdao Port was Asia's first fully automated container terminal, while in the Yangtze River Delta Region, Shanghai, Nanjing and Ningbo have initiated smart port constructions and demonstration projects. In 2014, the Xiamen Port upgraded no.14 and 15 container berth of Yuanhai Terminal to become the first semi-automated container terminal in China. In the Pearl River Delta Region, Guangzhou and Shenzhen have successively built their smart ports. In 2019, Chinese authorities unveiled the Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area  (Chinese: 粤港澳大湾区发展规划纲要), which  aims to develop the region into "a globally influential international innovation and technology hub."

Specifically, it is found that newly built and expanded autopilot ports, such as Shenzhen Mawan Port, Shanghai Yangshan Port, Ningbo Zhoushan port, are located in the southeast coastal areas. They are hardly seen in inland ports and river terminals mainly because of the lower demand considering the large volume of bulk cargos and fewer containers. Nevertheless, cities along the central river area are stepping up to accelerate the planning and construction of intelligent ports.

Established in 2017 and headquartered in Hangzhou, Zhejiang, FABU Technology (Chinese: 飞步科技)is a leading intelligent transportation solution provider devoted to delivering reliable technology to clients. Since 2019, FABU Technology has provided self-driving horizontal transportation services for Ningbo Zhoushan Port. After an in-depth understanding of the port environment and rapid technology iteration, FABU has demonstrated a comprehensive spectrum of self-driving terminal intelligent transportation solutions.

Trunk.Tech also has participated in various domestic logistics hub, such as Tianjin port and Ningbo-Zhoushan port. It is suggested that Trunk.Tech delivered a cumulative number of more than 100 autonomous port trucks. Moreover, according to Dr. Wang from Trunk.Tech, TrunkTech obtained the commercial vehicle autonomous driving test licenses in Beijing. It has conducted normalized L4 automated driving tests as well as demonstration operations on G3 Beijing-Taipei Expressway (Chinese: 京台高速公路)

From small-scale to large-scale landing: driverless trucks have a long way to go in China's logistics market

Currently, what most ports in China apply are standardized self-driving solutions. In fact, though, since the infrastructure conditions of different ports vary from each other, such as the number of berths and 10,000-ton berths, their transportation capacities differ from each other. Hence, diversifying and customizing unmanned application scenarios are of great significance to enhance the applicability of solutions.

A well-established port communication service platform features low latency, wide coverage, and confidentiality and information security management. However, the fiber optic and Wi-Fi communication facilities applied now are hard to meet these requirements at the same time. More importantly, high infrastructure costs, construction difficulties, as well as weak signal interference capabilities are also obstacles impeding the development of intelligent ports. Although the current concerns can be addressed by 5G technology, the cost pressure of 5G base stations is comparatively high.

One of the most important manifestations of the future development of smart ports is cross-industry, cross-sector, and cross-region coordination and collaboration. More specifically, the strategic collaboration among ports optimizes inland multimodal transportation network. Meanwhile, it provides comprehensive business transportation platform and synergy of logistics chain for upstream and downstream players. Maximizing the advantages of cloud computing and big data to explore and expand data application scenarios will provide various business opportunities as well as decision-making support for logistics, commerce and related stakeholders.

It is reported that FABU Technology has begun to formulate the development of remote driving systems in the ports. It has already successfully completed the verification of withdrawing the safety officer, achieving the full-scale, normalized, fully unmanned operation. According to Dr.Yang from FABU, the most challenging aspect of intelligent ports transformation and upgrading is to " regulate manned cars as unmanned cars." He further explained that the most challenging point at the current stage is how to define human behaviours through addressing the existing constraints and regulations in the system, making it safe, flexible, and authentic.

Based on Feibu's self-developed vehicle-road cloud integration collaboration platform, Dr.Yang further elaborated on how to address the existing challenges embedded in the intelligent port industry. FABU will proactively implement security strategies, achieve technological advancement, and control the full set of information.