Inicio EV European ports turned into ‘car parks’ as vehicle imports pile up

European ports turned into ‘car parks’ as vehicle imports pile up

European ports turned into ‘car parks’ as vehicle imports pile up
A car terminal at the Zeebrugge Port in Belgium
A car terminal at the Zeebrugge Port in Belgium. Some Chinese brand EVs have been sitting in European ports for up to 18 months, say industry insiders © Belga Mag/AFP/Getty Images

Imported vehicles are piling up at European ports, turning them into “car parks” as automakers and distributors struggle with a slowdown in sales and logistical bottlenecks including the lack of truck drivers.

Port and car industry executives have pointed to a pile-up of Chinese electric cars as one of the leading causes of the problem, with some companies booking shipping delivery slots without ordering onward transportation. In other instances, carmakers in general are struggling to order trucks because of the lack of drivers and equipment to move the vehicles on.

“Car distributors are increasingly using the port’s car parks as a depot. Instead of stocking the cars at the dealers, they are collected at the car terminal,” said the Port of Antwerp-Bruges, whose port at Zeebrugge is Europe’s busiest port for car imports. “All major car ports” were struggling with congestion, the port added, without specifying the origin of the vehicles.

Some car industry executives said Chinese carmakers were not selling their vehicles in Europe as fast as they expected, which was a major contributor to the glut at the region’s ports.

“Chinese EV makers are using ports like car parks,” said one car supply chain manager.

Some Chinese brand EVs had been sitting in European ports for up to 18 months, while some ports had asked importers to provide proof of onward transport, according to industry executives. One car logistics expert said many of the unloaded vehicles were simply staying in the ports until they were sold to distributors or end users.

“It’s chaos,” said another person who had been briefed on the situation.

Cui Dongshu, secretary-general of the China Passenger Car Association, said that “inland shipping in European markets is difficult [for Chinese EV brands]”.

Emphasising that brands needed to improve their “after sale” services, he added: “[We need to] change the guerrilla warlike car exports, which will throw ourselves into an unfavourable situation.”

BLG Logistics, the company that operates the car-handling terminal at the German port of Bremerhaven, Europe’s second-busiest port for vehicles, said it had experienced longer dwell times at its facilities after Germany’s federal government stopped subsidising purchases of EVs in December last year.

The clogging up of car terminals comes as many of China’s carmakers, such as BYD, Great Wall, Chery and SAIC, are planning an export push to Europe, both to keep their factories in China running and to capitalise on the region’s appetite for electric cars.

China’s car exports in 2023 were 58 per cent higher than the year before, prompting a significant reshaping of the vehicle market. In the first two months of this year, top export destinations of Chinese battery cars, plug-in hybrids and hydrogen vehicles, included Belgium, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands.

Wang Wentao, China’s minister of commerce, said at a meeting with Chinese carmakers in Paris on Sunday that accusations of “overcapacity” were “groundless”.

However, many of the Chinese groups were building teams in Europe from scratch and grappling with real-world logistical challenges, car executives said. As newcomers to the market, they have struggled to find haulage companies to prioritise their orders.

“Lack of trucks” is a “very common problem”, said one person familiar with the situation, who added that many vehicles had been “reserved by Tesla”.

“Any new brand will be facing this issue, if you don’t have scale, if you don’t have regular deliveries, then you are not the [trucking groups’] largest clients,” they added.

The situation has had a knock-on effect on ships unloading their cars. One operator of car-carrying ships, Oslo-based United European Car Carriers, said it had experienced “many frustrating experiences”, with its vessels being delayed in the Italian port of Livorno and the Greek port of Piraeus because of congestion in terminals.

The congestion is the latest setback for the global system for transporting finished cars. The industry has been struggling for months with a shortage of capacity on ships after the jump in Chinese vehicle exports prompted a 17 per cent rise in long-distance movements of vehicles from the year before. The problems were further exacerbated by diversions following attacks on the Red Sea, which have substantially lengthened ship journey times.

BYD, Great Wall, SAIC, Geely and Xpeng did not respond to requests for comment.