With a mammoth BMW manufacturing plant 200 miles inland, the Port of Charleston exported about 270,000 cars last year. That doesn’t include a growing number of semi-knocked down and completely knocked down vehicles that are stuffed into containers and exported for assembly elsewhere in the developing world. In addition, Charleston handled tens of thousands of containers packed with auto parts. Last year, auto parts ranked the biggest containerized export commodity outside forest products for the port and the biggest import commodity. The port estimates about 10% of total containers handled is automotive-related.
The automotive trade “has been growing and will continue to do so,” said Jim Newsome, the port’s CEO.
The biggest development on the horizon is the opening of a new $500 million Volvo plant in 2018 just 30 miles from Charleston. The plant will be the sole producer of Volvo’s S60 model and is expected to increase car shipments by some 50,000 annually.
Charleston is by no means the biggest car handling port in North America. It ranked 11th in North America, eighth in the US. And, it handled a mere 23,000 vehicles that were imported.
But its activity helps illustrate some of the complicated car-related logistics. For example, the BMW engines and transmissions are shipped from Europe to Charleston. Since 2014, a double-stack rail service links the port an inland port terminal adjacent to the Greer, South Carolina manufacturing facility. This line carries finished vehicles back to the port where they are exported.
Thousands of other discreet parts are shipped by truck and rail to the plant, where they are assembled into finished vehicles. These come from automotive parts manufacturing clusters in Michigan, Mexico and around South Carolina.
But a portion of all the parts are consolidated and kept in nearby warehouses. These are spare parts needed for servicing the vehicles worldwide and become the foundation for auto parts exports shipped in containers via the port.
The Greer plant makes all BMW’s SUVs worldwide and exports 70% of what it makes. As demand for this luxury vehicle grows, especially in emerging markets, that percentage may well increase. What’s more, a number of developing countries attempt to jumpstart their own automotive manufacturing by imposing stiff import duties on imported vehicles, especially luxury brands. To conform, BMW knocks down some of the cars it assembles in South Carolina and ships them out in containers. That trade is growing, Newsome said.
Fully assembled or knocked down, “we like to handle them either way,” Newsome said.