Road access stifles PBS, but changes coming

Only 52 vehicles approved under 'costly and complex' PBS, but regulators promising change to process

Road access stifles PBS, but changes coming
Road access stifles PBS, but changes coming
By Jason Whittaker

Just 52 vehicles have been approved under performance-based standards (PBS), with early adopters denied network access and other operators sceptical of the cost and complexity of the scheme.

The national PBS framework was designed to streamline the design and road access for non-prescriptive heavy vehicles. But a review into the scheme finds uncertainty around road access is stifling growth.

The National Transport Commission (NTC) is now recommending a number of changes to the approval process, including model legislation that could streamline access for PBS vehicles including B-triples.

Truck manufacturers could be allowed to assess their own vehicles and sell 'off-the-shelf' PBS-compliant trucks, while more 'blueprint' designs will be released to fast-track access.

The NTC report admits having only 52 vehicles approved by June is low compared to the 15,000 heavy trucks sold per year.

"It represents a scheme that in operational terms remains in its infancy," the report says.

Industry has adopted a "wait and see" approach to participation, the NTC says, largely because early adopters "have not realised the desired network access".

But the situation is improving, it says, with evidence state jurisidictions are beginning to put streamlined approval processes for so-called SMART PBS vehicles into policy. Only Queensland and South Australia will guarantee access to compliant vehicles on the mapped PBS network.

"There is clearly more work to be done in improving the access arrangements and information available in all states," the report says.

Many jurisdictions have been reluctant to grant access due to the aging state of bridges. The NTC wants a working group established to improve the bridge assessment process.

Industry also reports the application process is geared towards servicing small volumes of highly innovative vehicles and is unable to manage more standard combinations.

The NTC also found a lack of qualified assessors, operational information and resources to meet demand.

Meanwhile, only complete vehicle combinations can be submitted for approval, meaning a trailer that has been approved with a certain prime mover must be reassessed if used with another vehicle.

"This situation restricts real-world flexibility and reduces the productivity potential," the report says.

The NTC is calling for a more "strategic application" of PBS standards to fast-track standard combinations while not relaxing compliance hurdles.

Under new model legislation to be developed next year, trailer groups and prime movers could be assessed individually so operators have more flexibility in forming compliant combinations.

The NTC also wants a review of testing standards, saying the current practice of static physical testing or numerical modelling doesn’t take into account active safety systems now standard in most vehicles.

B-triples could be the biggest winners out of the review, with the NTC proposing to map a network and limits for the high performance multi-combination vehicles as a way of appeasing nervous councils and road agencies.

A new PBS level for the vehicles would assess appropriate performance, length and swept path requirements.

"This would achieve the aim of a nationally-consistent access framework for these generic high productivity vehicles in order to provide jurisdictions with the confidence that a vehicle’s safety performance is appropriate to the level of access," the report says.

A regulatory impact statement on the changes will be developed in the first quarter of 2010 to go before transport ministers.

The NTC says model legislation will offer "greater certainty and ensure PBS becomes a clear, nationally consistent scheme for delivering improvements in the road freight industry".

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