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‘Regulatory red tape’ stopping PBS reform, expert says

PBS reform

Amidst a number of changes currently being called for across the heavy vehicle industry, one of the most pressing is the reform of the Performance Based Standards (PBS) Scheme.

Now entering its 17th year of operation, PBS outlines minimum requirements for heavy vehicles and heavy vehicle combinations, but experts believe it is out of date and unnecessarily restricting Australian trucks.

OwnerDriver spoke to Scott Britton, who is the PBS Review Project Officer at the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator, after the NHVR released a statement outlining its position on the current PBS.

It describes how “the safest, most productive, and lower emission heavy vehicles face more barriers to get on the road than a standard ‘prescriptive’ heavy vehicle”, failing its original intentions.

That statement followed the release of the NHVR’s PBS 20 discussion paper in 2022, which put forward proposals for the reform of the scheme.

Britton says there were significant outcomes the regulator was able to take away from the industry response to that paper.

“The outcome of that process is that there was a lack of consensus among stakeholders,” he says.

“There were a number of proposals put forward, we really didn’t get any consensus around which ones might be the best path forwards.

“At the same time, transport ministers had engaged Ken Kanofski to undertake his broader review of the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL) which also included an assessment of the PBS scheme.

“He made a series of recommendations to ministers which were accepted which related to elements which could be reformed for the better.

“What we’ve seen is that with the lack of consensus among stakeholders we can get a broader acceptance that reform is required. We’ve looked to back that in with our new paper.”

Britton and the NHVR are well aware of continued frustrations from industry of the sluggish nature to changes to PBS and the broader HVNL.

Part of their push for these new changes come from a desire to see HVNL review progressing, with another step forward coming from transport ministers agreeing to the National Transport Commission’s recommendations in June.

“What we’re not seeing is a timetable that’s been laid out,” Britton says.

“The broader HVNL review has been going on for six years, and we’ve got a number of processes here that are taking time. We have to remember that the PBS scheme was originally conceived for the purpose of innovation.

“Ultimately we’re seeing that innovation come to a grinding halt and PBS becoming an alternative regulatory mechanism.”

Some of this hold up for PBS reform has come from what Britton describes as “regulatory red tape” getting in the way of manufacturers being able to innovate with their vehicles.

Updating the horizontal loading standard has already taken more than four years, he says, and that is holding up other reform.

“Four years is a long time to work towards one standard when innovation in other areas of heavy vehicle design is moving at a far greater pace,” Britton says.

“It then becomes a problem if an operator wants to put the possible option on the road in the terms of a combination that meets their freight task, which is what PBS is about, there are limitations in the way of how innovative they can be.

“The changes we’d like to see within the law are access elements to PBS vehicles. We’d like those common, mature designs like the 20m truck and dog or 30m A-doubles, which we’re seeing come through PBS in ever-increasing numbers recognised as a prescriptive combination is. They shouldn’t be subjected to the PBS process.

“They’ve gotten to the point where they’ve proven themselves so a design or vehicle approval is probably not necessary.

“In the first few years the number of annual approvals was around 75. They were in tiny annual increments. Now, we’re seeing just shy of 4000 new combinations being approved in a calendar year.”

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