Transport in the future | Container – and what next?

From vision to reality

“If you can’t move yourself, you can’t move anything” is a common saying in German. This then naturally raises the question whether container transport in its current form, has really developed into the ultimate, final solution for global transport needs. Absolutely not! The container will certainly not disappear. It is however clear that the system will always be subject to change.


In recent years increasing quantities of transport have lead both to more and bigger ships. This in turn led to the need for higher performance infrastructure. Today, this development is presenting us with new challenges: Especially in the transport industry, climate change is calling for new environment-friendly solutions. Both pollution loads and noise emissions must be lowered. In addition increasing urbanization is reducing space for transport infrastructure, and that when there is an increasing demand for transport.


Clever minds are working on solutions worldwide. These range from entirely new transport systems via digitalisation concepts, on to innovative sustainability measures. It remains to be seen, which ideas will prevail and which will remain fiction. One thing that we certainly should not do is to belittle or dismiss visions from the outset. It did not work with Malcom McLean, when he realized his container idea against all resistance.


One really innovative future vision is the Hyperloop high-speed project. Behind it is an idea from Tesla’s founder Elon Musk: People and freight should be transported through a tunnel from A to B at 1,220 km per hour using air pressure. It sounds like science fiction, but is already one stage further: A test track, has been built and used successfully in Nevada.

Hyperloop, Photo: Hyperloop One

3D Printing

3D printing is a new technology that is very advanced, and is already being applied in industry. Here it is not about developing a new transport system, but rather more avoiding the need for transport services as a consequence of 3D printing. With 3D printing, it is a process of adding material layer by layer, generating a three-dimensional object. If, for example, equipment in the Far East needs a spare part, then this no longer needs to be supplied by the manufacturer in Europe. They would simply transmit the 3D data and the spare can be ‘printed’ in the Far East. Some economists and scientists believe that this would considerably reduce global transport volumes. We must wait and see how this technology develops, since at the moment it is still seen as being very pricy. Hamburg, too, is involved in 3D printing, wanting to be a leader in this field. There are discussions about establishing a 3D printing centre in the Port of Hamburg.

Fresh from the 3D printer,  Photo: pixabay

China trains

China is the biggest trading partner for the Port of Hamburg. The Hanseatic City is considered as the gateway to Europe for Chinese goods. In 2016 alone, 2.6 million TEU were handled in Germany’s biggest seaport in the China trade. Almost one in three of containers going over the quay wall in the Port of Hamburg is destined for, or has its origin in the Middle Kingdom. For centuries transport between the Far East and Europe has been dominated by shipping. This is certainly not going to change, but China is working on developing an overland alternative. On the new Silk Road, rail should serve as an economic and political bridge between Europe and China. Hamburg, too, is playing an important role in this development, aiming to position itself more strongly as a rail hub for the China traffic. As Europe’s Number 1 rail port and with far-reaching China expertise behind it, it is only natural for Hamburg to play a key role in the new Silk Road. Already today, there are 177 container trains on offer weekly between China and the Hanseatic City. New services, improved rail products, additional destinations, with a resulting increase in cargo volume are constantly coming into being.

China train, Photo: Deutsche Bahn AG - Michael Rauhe

Crewless ships

Those who believe that the driverless vehicle is purely a topic for road traffic should think again. Above all in Norway and Japan, but also in Hamburg on the Elbe, there is research and early testing. In Norway, for example, first tests are running on a ferry, controlled by a computer. Docking and undocking has to be done by man, but once it has left harbour the journey is almost automatic. This includes accelerating, finding the route and maintaining speed. Autonomous systems save time, propulsion energy, running costs and make ships safer. Almost 90 percent of all accidents are caused by human error. As early as 2020 the first ships could be sailing crewless on some stretches. However, until they are completely autonomous will take another 15 years or more. The difficulty lies in busy traffic lanes into and out of ports. It might be possible to have a pilot crew come on board for these passages, or have people on shore steering remotely. No matter when they come, one thing is for sure: Crewless ships will completely change shipping.

DNV GL entwickelt an einem autonomen und elektrischen Schiffsentwurf, Photo: DNV-GL

Alternative Power Supply

The containership is not only economical but, seen ecologically, also very sensible. Hardly any other means of transport can carry so much cargo with comparable energy consumption. However shipping, just as rail and road transport has an obligation to reduce pollutant emissions. Especially in the ports, a great deal is being done to provide environment-friendly alternatives for the power supply, so that the ships can switch off their diesel auxiliary engines at their berth. One of these is liquefied gas – known in the trade as LNG or Liquid Natural Gas. In the Port of Hamburg there is already an LNG barge, which like a kind of floating power station, comes alongside at the berth and can supply the vessel with environment-friendly power. But you can still go a step further: CMA CGM, one of the biggest container shipping lines in the world, is going to equip its mega-containerships with LNG propulsion. So, these will not only be powered by environment-friendly liquefied gas in port, but out on the high seas too.


LNG Barge, Photo: Becker Marine Systems


Digitalization concerns every one of us and is going to fundamentally change many areas of our lives – in private households, medical care, industry, the finance sector and, certainly in the transport and logistics industry, too. The term ‘digitalization’ is used to identify change and optimization of processes through the increased use of digital equipment. In the shipping industry and in the Port of Hamburg, this development is being spurred on urgently. One example of this is Hamburg Port Authority’s smartPort initiative. Using cutting-edge digital intelligence, this guarantees seamless, efficient port operations. The control systems implemented are state-of- the-art worldwide, with the interplay of sensor technology, analyses, forecasts and information systems securing an enormous increase in efficiency. That is not only good for business: It’s good for the environment, too.



Control Centre HHLA Container Terminal Altenwerder, Photo: HHLA - Thies Rätzke

Terminal technology

The Hamburg container terminals count among the most modern in the world. Technical innovations and automated work processes ensure a high level of productivity and short lay times for the ships. Extremely important is the optimized exploitation of space capacity, because this is limited and in a city port like Hamburg cannot simply be extended. One example is the new container storage blocks at HHLA Container Terminal Burchardkai. Where in the past the containers were stored in long rows, today they are stacked in automated block storage, extremely compact und space-saving. This has lead to almost doubling the storage capacity. Further advantages: the gantry cranes spanning the block storage can work continuously, and when they have little to do, they move individual boxes to optimal positions calculated by the IT. This shortens the collection procedure later. In addition, the fully automated operations reduce the risk of accident.

Automated block storage, Photo: HHLA - Thies Rätzke

ITS Congress

The Hanseatic City of Hamburg will host the 2021 World Congress for Intelligent Transport Systems - ITS. This congress is the biggest of its kind in the world, with all the relevant players from the worlds of research, business and politics taking part. Some 10,000 experts are expected in Hamburg from 11 to 15 October 2021. The Hamburg Senate is working intensively at making Hamburg into Germany’s model city for intelligent mobility and logistics. Many projects are being started with their results hopefully being presented at the ITS congress.



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In co-operation of

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Hamburg Port Authority AöR