The prospect of war in Iraq makes automakers worry about sales. But the most immediate effect is a shortage of car-carrying ships.
Ships designed to export cars and trucks can also carry tanks, armored personnel carriers and military trucks. And many of them are currently delivering several US and British armored divisions to the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas.
The military prefers smaller, older ferry-type ships to newer roll-on/roll-off vessels, said Tony Addison, European operations manager for Mitsui OSK Shipping. But there will likely be a shortage of both kinds of car-carriers operating out of Europe for several months.
"Had this been November or December of last year, we would be concerned but vehicle demand is easing at present," said Chris Connor, chief operating officer of Wallenius Wilhelmsen Lines based in Norway and Sweden. "I don't want to downplay it, but all indications are we will manage pretty well."
Current war preparations hardly affect automotive parts shipping in Europe because shippers have already adjusted to restrictions imposed after September 11, 2001. Car-port managers at Zeebrugge, Belgium, say security to control illegal immigrants already includes guard dogs at night and checks on individual containers and cars using X-ray and CO2 scanners.
"There's not much more we would or could add," said one manager.
New US customs regulations require the contents of all containers entering the USA to be declared 24 hours in advance. Some shippers privately say that has reduced client demands for unscheduled emergency shipments.
Shippers worry about the cost of growing security measures. Airfreight specialist Panalpina had to create new employee verification and security systems for cargo shipments. Panalpina expects future counter-terrorist measures to include US customs workers stationed in European ports and greater EU security regulations on civil aviation.
Carmakers are watching the situation closely.
"We have contingency plans in the event of war - how we produce and how we ship," said Mark Fields, chairman and CEO of Ford's Premier Automotive Group. "I'm cautious and we're planning cautiously."