PBS: From boutique to mainstream

In 2006, Australia’s leading road haulage businesses were looking for a freight forwarding solution that could achieve higher productivity and safety through innovative vehicle design. Hence the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and the national Productivity Commission created a scheme that would urge both manufacturing industry and road agencies to cooperate in developing vehicles to outperform any traditional combination. Named Performance-Based Standards (PBS), the scheme went down in history as the most innovative, yet complex policy ever brought in. 

Today, PBS still is a key element of COAG’s national reform agenda for transport, but much has changed since the scheme was introduced. Most importantly, though, the system is now officially administered by the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR), a central institution based in Brisbane that has been welcomed by many a leading personality in the industry. 

Headed by CEO Richard Hancock, the NHVR is Australia’s first national independent regulation office for all vehicles over 4.5 tonnes GVM. But it’s not just the administration that has ben relocated; there is more change to come.

In March 2012, Australia’s transport ministers voted unanimously in favour of changes to the scheme, leading to one set of laws for heavy vehicles, labelled Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL). Although it still has to be acknowledged by all states and territories Australia-wide, the HVNL is likely to pave the way for a national system of assessment and access. According to Les Bruzsa, head of the PRB Secretariat at the newly formed regulation body, that national system will also be administered in Queensland and come into effect later in 2013.

“At the moment, PBS designs and are approved by the NHVR on advice from the PBS Review Panel and road network access is negotiated separately by operators through state, territory and local road authorities. Later in 2013, we will become your single point of contact when applying to the PBS scheme. We will issue all design and vehicle approvals based on advice from the PBS Review Panel. We will also advise on and request road network access, where necessary, with the relevant road managers.”

Under the law, the NHVR could also set up a system of ‘modular PBS assessment’ to allow transport businesses Australia-wide to use a range of prime-movers in front of a high-performance trailer as long as they have been pre-approved to under the PBS scheme. “Modular assessment of heavy vehicles will give you more choice when purchasing pre-approved PBS equipment. It will allow industry to mix and match PBS vehicle components, making it easier for manufacturers to offer a more flexible combination”

Coinciding with the inception of Australia’s first national PBS administration body, the Australian Road Transport Suppliers Association (ARSTA) hosted a dedicated PBS Conference in Melbourne in March. At the Conference, George Konstandakos, Acting Chief Executive of the National Transport Commission, said the changes to the scheme that are about to come will give the industry more certainty of access and operational flexibility and result in a range of benefits to the community.

He also pointed out that recent industry feedback indicated that PBS was the right tool to achieve more productivity on the road haulage segment. “We now have more than 1,000 PBS vehicles on the road, and we are very pleased to see that the scheme is ramping up,” he said. According to Konstandakos, the vast majority (63 per cent) of all PBS-approved vehicles to date are truck and dog combinations, while 11 per cent operate in Queensland in an A-double set-up and only 10 per cent come in a B-double-esque configuration.

Konstandakos also said that the use of pre-assessed ‘blueprints’ will help ramp up PBS production in the future. “Right now, only 0.1 per cent of the heavy vehicle fleet in Australia is PBS-approved. By 2030, we expect 3.5 per cent of the fleet to be high-performance vehicles under the PBS scheme.

“But, it’s important to note that the mapping and classification of suitable road networks for these vehicles remains the responsibility of road managers. Mapping of networks will be key to the successful implementation of the changes to the scheme, as understanding the level of road network access likely to be granted by road agencies is crucial before submitting an application.”

According to Les Bruzsa, the most important phase will begin when the National Heavy Vehicle Law has passed all jurisdictions that are currently involved in the process. “The NHVR will be limited in its scope until July when the HVNL legislation will be passed through the parliaments of the majority of states and territories,” he said. “But once this process is complete, the NHVR will be able to deliver a comprehensive range of services under a consistent regulatory framework.”

Where the scheme has already gained traction, it has been met with a lot of enthusiasm, with transport companies queuing up to jump on the bandwagon. The Victorian tipper industry, for example, has seen an explosion in the number of longer tipper and dog combinations on the road, taking advantage of much higher mass allowances and a streamlined PBS process. And in Queensland in the East of the country, operators who have introduced so-called A-double combinations that allow for 100 per cent improvements in productivity.

Despite that initial success, Bruzsa pointed that the NHVR still has to deliver on simplifying the approval process, aligning the scheme to technological progress, and providing consistent access decisions. “It’s an exciting time for all of us in Australia and we are optimistic that we can change a lot if we work together and get productive feedback from the people in the industry.”

In addition to official statements, the ARTSA PBS Conference also gave those a chance to tell their story who are already operating PBS vehicles on the ground. One such “early adopter” is Ray Cauchi of Cartage Australia. Cauchi brought up the issue of tyres and their specification. In today’s Australia, approval is granted on the basis of using particular tyres only, which can lead to confusion when changing the supplier.

Two parameters are currently referring to the performance of a tyre – self-aligning torque and cornering force. They are used in the PBS simulation to assess whether a truck will meet PBS standards. This level of information about tyres is often available from large global manufacturers, but not necessarily shared widely. As tyres are replaced and suppliers change, the permit could therefore become invalid. Cauchi himself had to go through the process of getting tyres re-assessed by the authorities to demonstrate the vehicle performed just as well as the initial approval. Hence, many in Australia are now calling for a classification system for tyres to be set up.

Despite those issues, there is no denying PBS has come a long way in the past half decade, with 359 applications accepted, leading to over 1000 vehicles being approved to run on the road. There are now 13 PBS assessors, compared with only two five years ago, and seven certifiers where there were none in 2007. Currently, 75 per cent of all PBS trucks are running in the south of Australia. By 2012, the PBS fleet made up just 0.1 per cent of the Australian fleet, but the projections by NTC suggest a ratio of 3.5 per cent by 2030.

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