Finished-vehicle logistics tends to go unnoticed in the automotive sector compared with manufacturing and marketing — until a shipping delay creates a shortage at dealerships. Consumers don't care how their shiny new car got to the lot, but for automakers, transportation efficiency is an important part of keeping costs down and remaining competitive.
Ports are an important node in that supply chain. In North America, the sector has witnessed a flurry of investment activity in the last 12 months as logistics providers and port authorities work to increase throughput and reduce the expense of getting vehicles from factory to showroom as the volume that is traveling longer distances grows.
Last year, the U.S. imported nearly 8.3 million vehicles, a 19 percent increase from 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Automakers in the U.S. export about 2 million passenger vehicles annually.
Vehicle exports from Mexico to the U.S. have increased 71 percent over the last five years to 2.4 million, as more automakers open plants south of the border to take advantage of cheaper labor and the country's burgeoning supplier network. Although the Trump administration's revised trade deal with Mexico and Canada is expected to raise automakers' operating costs, forecasters still expect Mexican production to reach 5 million vehicles by 2020 as exports increase to other countries that enjoy liberal trade terms with Mexico.
Automakers' efforts to reach global markets and avoid railroad bottlenecks by using water routes to the U.S. are pressuring Mexico's auto ports, which were designed with general cargo in mind. For their part, U.S. ports and private partners are ramping up to handle the extra water traffic from Mexico, while building additional auto terminals to serve niche markets.