Total vehicle exports from South Africa are predicted to double between now and 2008, the Made in South Africa Automotive Conference in Port Elizabeth heard on Wednesday.

The biggest export markets will be Australia and New Zealand and after that will be Asia, Per Eitzen, vice president, South Africa, Wallenius Wilhelmsen Lines, told the two-day conference.

By then, SA will be exporting more cars than it builds for its domestic market, with domestic sales of just under 300,000 units a year and exports of just over 300,000 a year, research by his company suggests.

To help service this growth, shipping lines needed proficient port services.

"A roll-on roll-off carrier is worth $US50 million and the cargo of up to 6,000 cars can be worth the same again so we can't afford to have $80 million to $100 million worth of ship and cargo waiting. Time is money and we need fast turnaround," Eitzen told the conference.

Environmental preparedness was one weakness that SA ports needed to address.

Waste disposal and availability of low sulphur fuels was not always as good as it should be, said Eitzen.

Another challenge in SA was that port costs were relatively high and there were too many ports. "If you include Maputo in Mozambique there are four ports serving South Africa. Ideally we would like two and certainly no more than three." The other ports are Durban, East London and Port Elizabeth itself.

"In Europe we have rationalised our operations to three ports, Southampton in the UK, Zeebrugge in Holland and Bremerhaven in Germany. We even haul cars overland from Turkey to Zeebrugge for onward shipping," said Eitzen.

Hub solutions like the one adopted in Europe were the best way forward for roll-on roll-off shippers who had to pay 60% more in port costs than container ships.

He also called on South African port companies to provide more facilities under cover to allow for cars to be delivered in pristine conditions.