How Do Car Carrier Ships Work & What Do They Do?

Sep 14, 2023 · 8 mins read ·

Shipping & Vessels
A car carrier ship and tug boat at sea

Have you ever wondered how exactly car carrier ships work and how they transport their bulky wares? If so, join us as we take a closer look at vehicle carriers and their RoRo cargo. Wait…RoRo cargo?? Don’t worry - we’ll explain everything!

First of all, a car carrier ship is pretty much what it sounds like: it’s a ship that carries cars. But car ships can be broken down into a couple of different types and we’ll take a look at those as well in a moment.

But first, let’s get back to that RoRo cargo. Car carriers are also known as RoRo ships. (You may also see this written as Ro-Ro ship or Ro Ro ship or vessel.

RoRo stands for Roll-On/Roll-Off; therefore a RoRo vessel is a specially designed ship that is built to carry wheeled cargo. And RoRo ships don’t just transport cars; RoRo cargo also includes anything else that can be rolled on and rolled off a ship - for example, trucks, buses, vans and even military tanks. 

Read more: Everything You Need to Know About RoRo Ships

Unlike many other cargo ships, car carriers do not use cranes or derricks to load and unload cargo, as the term RoRo suggests, vehicles are driven onto and off the ship using ramps.

How do car carrier ships work?

Ships that carry cars and other wheeled vehicles have a number of identifying features that enable them to safely, securely and efficiently transport their cargo from point A to point B. 

The deck of a car ship vessel is flat and open and is equipped with ramps at both the stern and the bow. (The stern being the rear of the vessel and the bow being the front.)

This means that cars and other vehicles can be easily driven (or rolled) onto and off the ship at the start and end of the journey. 

It goes without saying that the decks on a car carrier ship must also be strong enough to support the weight of the vehicles.

As with all cargo and container ships, car carrier vessels must also have a number of safety features. These include sprinkler systems to help extinguish any potential fires and the division of the decks into compartments by fire bulkheads. 

A bulkhead is an upright partition or wall in a ship’s hull which subdivides the vessel’s interior into watertight and/or fireproof sections. In the event of an accident, the bulkheads reduce the extent to which seawater or fire can flood or damage the ship. 

What are the different types of car carriers?

As we touched upon briefly above there are a couple of different types of ships that transport cars and these are:

  • Pure Car Carriers (PCC): ships that carry only cars as their RoRo cargo
  • Pure Car Truck Carriers (PCTC): vessels that carry various types of four-wheeled cargo  

To read more about car carrier vessels, take a look at this in depth blog post here: Everything You Need to Know About Car Carrier Ships

How are car carrier vessels loaded and unloaded?

Needless to say, the loading and unloading of a vehicle carrier’s cargo must be done efficiently and in an orderly manner so that operations remain safe, the cargo is undamaged and the port turnaround time is as quick as possible. After all, time is money!

Some of the steps involved in loading and unloading a car carrier ship include:

  • The car carrier vessel arrives at the port and docks at a pre-designated terminal
  • A team of drivers is ready and waiting at the terminal and will prepare the cars or other vehicles for loading
  • The car carrier’s ramps are lowered at one end of the vessel and the vehicles are driven on board
  • Next the vehicles are secured in place using lashings
  • When all of the vehicles are loaded, the ramps are raised and the vessel leaves the  port and embarks on the journey to her destination

Once the car carrier ship has arrived at the destination port, the process is simply reversed. 

The exit ramps are lowered and the vehicles are driven off the ship. They will then be inspected for any damage and, all being well, will be handed over to the client, agent or consignee.

How many vehicles can a car carrier ship hold?

There’s no one size fits all when it comes to ships that transport cars and the capacity of a vessel will depend on a number of factors:

  • The overall size of the ship
  • The number of decks
  • The decks’ height
  • The decks’ width
  • The type of vehicles being transported

For example, it’s obvious that a car carrier tasked with carrying a RoRo cargo of average  family-sized cars will be able to transport a lot more than if the vehicles on board were buses or coaches.

At the time of writing, the largest car carrier vessels are able to carry up to 8,500 CEU. CEU stands for Car Equivalent Unit. A CEU is used to measure the capacity of vehicle or car carriers and is generally based on the dimensions of a 1966 Toyota Corona RT43.

Having said that, the majority of car ships aren’t loaded with quite so much cargo and will be more likely to be transporting around 2,000 CEU - or vehicles.

And by the way, if you’re interested in finding out more about some of the weird and wonderful nautical terms, phrases, words and acronyms used in the shipping industry, be sure to check out our maritime glossary!

The car carrier ship and the supply chain

While some countries across the world have seen a slight decrease in car ownership, particularly since the pandemic, some researchers have predicted that “...the total vehicle stock will increase from about 800 million in 2002 to more than two billion units in 2030.” 

It remains clear, then, that car carrier ships are a vital link in the global supply chain and an important part of the merchant fleet. Without them there wouldn’t be a steady supply of vehicles available to meet the needs of both businesses, organizations and consumers.

Eve Church

Eve Church

Eve is Martide's content writer, publishing regular posts on everything from our maritime recruitment and crew planning software to life at sea. Eve has been writing professionally for more than two decades, crafting everything from SEO-focused blog posts and website landing pages to magazine articles and corporate whitepapers.


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