Back to the future: Smarter Combos

By: Cobey Bartels

Truck and trailer combinations have come a long way in Australia, from the first road train to the birth of the B-double. But where is the future of trailers headed?


With all the talk of drone delivery and platooning trucks that won’t need a driver, will trailer combinations continue to push the envelope, or will technology take over?

If you spend enough time on Australian roads, you will have noticed more and more trailer combinations popping up, many of them one-off concoctions built for a very specific task.

The National Heavy Vehicle Regulator’s (NHVR) Performance-Based Standards (PBS) scheme, and the 6,200 approved vehicles it’s put on the roads, is a driving force behind the rapid influx of bold new combinations.

According to NHVR Chief Engineer Les Bruzsa, also known as the ‘Quadfather’ in transport circles, it might be a while before we have PBS combinations that platoon autonomously.

"I’m a little bit sceptical with platooning and interestingly we’ve done some simulations to demonstrate that," Bruzsa tells Owner//Driver.

"We did some simulation for certain performance characteristics, all of which are part of the PBS standards, and if we simulate a setup like that, then the overall dynamic performance is not that good."

Bruzsa doesn’t write off the technology, but explains that Australian roads may not be as well-equipped for the technology as those in Europe.

"We’ve got narrow roads … and they don’t perform that well - It might work for Europe’s network with divided roads.

"Larger combinations developed under PBS will have better performance characteristics than a platoon."

The scheme is successfully advancing Australia’s transport productivity, as well as improving safety, with analysis showing that PBS vehicles are involved in 46 percent less major crashes per kilometres travelled.

Nations like New Zealand and South Africa are taking note, now developing their own PBS schemes following the success of the NHVR’s model.

The driving force behind the NHVR’s PBS scheme, Les Bruzsa, sees a bright future for PBS once access is improved

Into the future, Bruzsa says the scheme needs to constantly adapt to advances in technology and vehicle performance standards.

"One element that I think is going to change … is the review of the standards.

"That’s a fundamental thing, to see if we picked the right standards and we picked them at the right levels.

"Are those standards all necessary or do we need additional ones which will address different performance characteristics of the vehicles, because vehicles are changing all the time?

"Currently PBS doesn’t give an option to include any heavy vehicle technology, like for instance stability control is not part of it.

"Most of the vehicles are now fitted with it, but how do we asses it in PBS if it doesn’t address that?

"We have to adjust the PBS methods as technology changes."

Bruzsa says reviewing the PBS standards is only the start, with the Regulator also aiming to simplify the approval process and resolve access limitations.

"I think we are going to past B-doubles and we’re going to have multi-combination vehicles which might be using elements of the B-double.

"I was there when we introduced the B-triples and I was hoping they would change the scene around the transport industry and it didn’t happen because of the access limitations.

"Within the next couple of years we’re going to see a couple of very innovative combinations, and I think when industry realises the opportunities, and when we sort out the access issues its going to be a very big jump."

Bruzsa says introducing more pre-approved designs and reducing the need for assessors will not only simplify the approval process, it will also reduce the cost involved.

"The second area is making it more simple … I think now we know enough about them and their performance; we could put those combinations back into the prescriptive systems.

"If you build your vehicles in accordance, you know that it’s a PBS vehicle.

"That’s going to be a big thing that’ll make it easier for industries to use PBS."

The trailers we’ll see in the future, Bruzsa believes, will be tailored to the freight type and operating requirements, improving efficiency and productivity.

"I think under PBS we have provided the framework for innovative solutions and we’re going to move towards very specialised tailored combinations instead of the ones that we see now.

"So, you’re going to see a wider range of trailer types."


Platooning barriers

Australian Trucking Association (ATA) technical consultant Bob Woodward also notes access issues and a lagging road network when discussing platooning and trailer innovation into the future.

"A significant barrier to platooning as the Europeans are promoting, is the Australian road network," Woodward says.

"You’ve got this train going up the road that’s 120 metres long … how’s a motorist going to overtake?

"The lack of access is going to be a big issue for the next 25 years I’m sure.

"Even with PBS, access is an issue.

"A real example is that we applied for a B-triple on an existing road train route and the application was denied on the basis that there isn’t an approved route."

ATA technical consultant Bob Woodward points out that down under, we already platoon

Woodward is quick to point out that Australia already does platoon, albeit with just one truck.

"Australia is a world leader in platooning; we just do it differently – very differently.

"B-double, B-triples, AB-triples are effectively very efficient methods of platooning."

As far as development into the future are concerned, Woodward sees another limiting factor, and that’s vehicle dimensions.

"The current dimensional limitations certainly place significant limits on what might be achieved.

"Many in regulation want to pick and choose – but when it comes to width, Australia is truly lacking – in vehicle widths we’d be at the bottom end of the developed world.

"Width is a huge factor because if we increase the width we increase axle track and stability."

Platooning, will we ever witness it on Australian roads?

Trailer longevity

Trailer manufacturing is going strong in Australia, due in part to the PBS scheme, unique operating conditions and the demand for rugged build quality.

MaxiTrans product and market development manager Roland Weber, believes the future of trailer manufacturing down under will be a positive one.

"You look at the US; trailers over there are only expected to last five to seven years. European trailers last eight to 12 years. Ours are expected to last a minimum of 15 years – we build them stronger, more robust and better suited to our climate," Weber says.

"Others come into our market and struggle to build them to the same standards.

"If we’re smart, we can keep building stuff here."

While talk of combination types floods the industry, trailer technology is also improving at an impressive rate.

Weber highlights that a strong focus on research and development allows MaxiTrans to stay ahead of the curve and the manufacturer is leaving no stone unturned.

"We’ve significantly increased our R&D budget this year, working with Federation University and Monash University and other industry leaders, covering R&D, material science and technology.

"We’re talking about things like safety, productivity, aerodynamics, making things lighter, and more sustainable."

MaxiTrans aims to lead the charge in closing the gap between Australia and Europe in terms of transport sustainability.

"Cradle to grave sustainability; we want to be the leader in that.

"Sustainability in transport in Australia is close to 20 years behind where Europe is.

"We are going to invest in something others haven’t done."

Weber says MaxiTrans wants to remain one of Australia’s top trailer manufacturers into the future, both through research and development, as well as a sustainability focus.

 "What will a trailer look like in 25 years? Nobody really knows for certain, so we’re involving people smarter than us to look at the intellectual side and to begin planning for it.

"And, look, in 25 years we still want to be a leader in the industry – I think there is still a place for manufacturing in Australia so we want to be a part of it.

"The way to make that happen is through innovation, by giving back to the community. I believe in the 3 Ps – people, planet, profit – which means knowing your community, how your product or service impacts the environment and how you can still remain a profitable and viable company."

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