What Is The Boat That Carries Cars Called? | LakeWizard

Key Takeaways

  • A boat that carries cars is called a roll-on/roll-off ship, or RORO ship for short.
  • The name comes from the way wheeled cargo is rolled on and off the ships.
  • RORO ships are usually built to be ferries, which carry people and cars, or pure car carriers (PCCs), which are cargo ships built to transport cars.
  • RORO vessels can transport all different types of wheeled goods including cars, buses, tractor-trailers, heavy machinery, train cars, and more.

The number of cars on the road has been increasing for decades now, but the more we make, the more we need better ways to ship them around the world.

So what are boats that carry cars called? Any vessel designed to carry cars, trucks, or any other wheeled cargo is called a roll-on/roll-off ship, or RORO ship for short. RORO ships are usually built to be ferries or cargo ships, with some being able to transport thousands of vehicles at a time.

With so many transport vehicles moving people and goods every day, it's no wonder that these car carriers have become so common. Whether you happen to see a big cargo ship full of cars coming into port, or you simply live in a place where you need to take a ferry every once in a while, most of you have had some sort of experience with RORO ships before, even if you weren’t aware of it before. So what exactly are RORO ships, what are they normally used for, and how big do these ships get?

Table of contents


What Is The Boat That Carries Cars Called?

Any vessel that is designed to carry cars or any other wheeled cargo is called a RORO ship. ROROs come in many different shapes and sizes and could be anything from a small ferry only meant to move a few passengers and their vehicles across a short stretch of water, or a giant cargo ship built to bring thousands of new cars fresh out of the factory from Asia to Europe.

As mentioned above, the RORO in RORO ships stands for roll-on/roll-off. This is in reference to the way that cargo is loaded on and unloaded from these types of vessels, with the vehicles essentially being rolled on and off on their own wheels.

ROROs usually have some sort of built-in ramp that allows vehicles to be driven or rolled right. However, even with the built-in ramps, most ROROs need some sort of specialized unloading facility or ferry slip to be able to load and unload cargo efficiently.

What Are RORO ships used for?

ROROs can handle various types of wheeled vehicles and freight including cars, tractor-trailers tucks, and even train cars, so they’re incredibly useful in any situation where it's more efficient to travel by sea than by land.

For this very reason, the most common uses for ROROs are either as large cargo vessels that transport large shipments of new cars across oceans or ferries that move both people and their vehicles.

What Is A Pure Car Carrier?

A cargo ship that is built to move only cars is called a Pure Car Carrier or PCC for short. These pure car carriers are designed to safely haul thousands of vehicles from one continent to another.

While these types of vessels may be common nowadays, there wasn’t much need to ship a car  across the ocean until around the 1950s with the first PCCs coming into service in the 60s.

Before the PCC, it was common practice to ship a car or truck or two on a normal container ship, but by 1973, the largest PCC in the world, a Japanese vessel called the European Highway, was already capable of carrying 4200 cars at a time.

However, nowadays, there’s a lot more demand for new cars than there was in 1973, so in order to keep up, these car carrier vessels have gotten absolutely massive, with many having enough capacity to fit over double the amount of vehicles as the largest RORO vessels in the 70s could.

PCCs are usually pretty easy to spot because of their very tall side walls which are necessary to house the multiple cargo decks needed to safely transport thousands of cars. PCCs have ramps inside to move vehicles between decks and because these vessels are meant to fit as many cars as possible, the height of the decks is usually quite short in order to save as much space as possible.

Some car carrier vessels even have movable decks that allow you to adjust the height of each deck. This is even more common in pure car/truck carriers, or PCTCs, where you might need decks to be taller in order to accommodate large trucks, heavy machinery, or any other vehicles.

PCCs and PCTCs have become incredibly important over the years, making them some of the biggest and most commonly used RORO vessels out there.


The other most common type of RORO vessel is the ferry. Ferries tend to be much smaller than most modern PCCs and usually travel much shorter distances, transporting both people and their cars between coastal towns or different islands.

While most people probably haven’t had much exposure to PCCs, it's safe to say that most people have had some sort of experience with a ferry at some point or another, whether you live near a ferry line or not.

Ferries can come in a wide range of sizes, from small barges only meant to shuttle a few cars and people between isolated coastal towns or larger ships with multiple decks that accomodate hundreds of people and cars at once.

The largest of these ferries is the MS Color Magic, a cruise ferry that was built in Finland and is now operated by Norway’s Color Line. It serves their route from Oslo, Norway to Kiel, Germany. It has enough room for 550 cars along with 2600 passengers.

The big thing that separates ferries from PCCs is that ferries primarily serve people. While many large ferries are RORO vessels built with enough room to fit hundreds of cars, others simply aren’t, being much smaller and only carrying transporting small groups of people from one place to another.

The important thing to remember is that not all ferries are ROROs. While a boat can be classified as a ferry regardless of whether it carries cars or not, this is of course not the case with RORO vessels, so while any ferry that transports people along with their vehicles is a RORO ship, ferries that can’t accommodate cars are not.

What Is The Biggest RORO Vessel In The World?

So now that you know all about different RORO vessels and how we use them, just how big do these things get?

Unsurprisingly the largest RORO vessel in the world is a PCC, which as you remember, are designed to bring huge quantities of cars from one continent to another and tend to be much larger than even the largest cruise ferries.

The largest pure car carrier in the world is the MV Tønsberg. Built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan, it was delivered to its current operator, the Norwegian shipping company Wilh. Wilhemsen,  in 2010 and has a mindblowing carrying capacity of 8500 cars.