It is encouraging to see the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator have a clear focus on productivity with the release of the NHVR Heavy Vehicle Productivity Plan 2020 – 2025 (August 2020).
Improving productivity not only supports the economy and growth but enables the industry to support road safety and sustainability initiatives.
The Productivity Plan outlines short, medium, and long term – objectives, goals and priority actions. There is a clear focus on Performance Based Standards (PBS) with the core objectives of: providing access certainty and consistency, building partnerships and capacity with local government, and promoting safer and more productive heavy vehicles.
The main goal of PBS is to provide greater access and certainty for PBS Vehicles. The associated priority actions are to exempt a greater range of PBS vehicles from access permits on PBS networks. This is a great initiative and would expand on the existing PBS Truck and Dog Notice which allows Truck and Dogs onto PBS Level 1 and 2 Networks without a permit. This Notice could easily be expanded to include Semi-trailers, B-doubles, A-Doubles and B-Triples. However, a much better approach and to meet the true intent of PBS, is an opportunity to develop a PBS Notice which does not specify the type of vehicle – simply the performance Level. In this way the industry could truly innovate and streamline processes. This alone can go a long way towards removing the issues associated with access uncertainty, cost and the time associated with obtaining permits for PBS Vehicles.
The associated short-term goals (1 to 2 years) for PBS is to encourage road mangers to expand the gazetted and pre-approved PBS networks through enhanced data sharing of historic PBS approvals. Unfortunately, the current systems and processes mean that sometimes, what was once a “yes” becomes a “no”. One can be forgiven for assuming that a road manager can simply pull up the case-history of similar permit approvals, but unfortunately with the current systems it is not so simple. The NHVR is working on improvements to the portal, with better visibility and tools for road managers. . However, the industry will know immediately if the improved data sharing is effective, as access outcomes make more sense and become truly equitable.
The medium-terms goals (2 to 4 years) for PBS include development of PBS 2.0. This includes completion of the various standards reviews including standardising tyres, pavement loading standards and updating the PBS braking standards to include electronic stability control, among other things. PBS 2.0 will also focus on streamlining PBS approval process, again, largely through a more streamlined submission channel through the NHVR Portal.
Tiger Spider engages regularly with the NHVR to support these changes and we can see a future where PBS is more mainstream and the benefits of increased safe and more productive vehicles can keep pace with the available technology to support a larger PBS fleet without excessive red-tape. Changing standards and processes always takes time, some of the reforms proposed have been promised for over 10 years. It is normal to overestimate what can be achieved in the short term and underestimate what can be achieve in the longer term. Unfortunately, resolution of hot issues like PBS tyres will not happen this year, however, the NHVR does appear to be on track to effectively resolve matters by early 2022. Hopefully, more can be done during the medium-term.
The NHVR also wants to transition PBS designs and blueprints developed by the industry to prescriptive vehicle designs and networks. Whilst on face value this appears to make sense, it may well undermine the scheme because it ignores the investment made by those innovators in the industry who have done most of the hard work of investing time and money in getting the vehicle designs approved. It also does not address the real problem associated with PBS, which is to streamline the cumbersome process and put the necessary targeted investment into infrastructure to support high productivity vehicles. It is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and ensure that moving forward the NHVR maintains a strict certification process and gathers the data necessary to direct infrastructure spending into the right areas. Done well, PBS must be a constant evolution of innovation and design so that the industry is always investing in newer technology providing a competitive edge.
The actions for the long-term (4+ years) in the NHVR Productivity Plan are a little less concrete. Perhaps this is understandable, given typical planning cycles of government and business. There is a focus on utilising movement data to facilitate greater access. However, this is perhaps an opportunity missed to articulate a grander vision for Heavy Vehicle Productivity, that sets ambitious goals for the productivity of future vehicles, particularly the size and weight of both general access and restricted networks supported by a plan to invest in roads and bridges to support the future higher productivity vehicles. One would envisage a network of roads that could support higher weights and longer vehicles, especially on key freight corridors. Perhaps a 5-year plan is too short, and we need to predict what the heavy vehicles network might look like in 2050. We believe as an industry we can achieve a lot in the coming 30 years.