The heavy vehicle sector is a place where rules are not made to be broken.
Regulations govern almost everything a heavy vehicle operator does and, generally, that’s how it has to be.
It’s the way that the rules are sometimes applied – without regard to individual circumstances – that creates issues.
Regulatory regimes are also the reason we have the types of trucks we do in Australia – and it’s a similar story around the world.
The recent news that NSW, Victoria and South Australia are trialling changes to weight laws to accommodate heavy-duty electric trucks started me thinking about these regulatory regimes and the role they play.
For much of the background for this article, I’m indebted to veteran writer Allan Whitting.
About the only consistent thing you can say about heavy vehicle regulations around the world is that they all date from the post World War 2 era.
The exponential growth in road traffic in the late 1940s and early ‘50s brought about the need for regulations.
Most urban centres and bridges were in existence long before trucks, so rules had to be put in place to make sure trucks could fit.
The trucks you see vary from continent to continent because they are the product of their physical and regulatory environments.
In the US, for example, legal axle weights are lower and bridge formula dimensions are greater than in Australia. Truck lengths are unregulated (something copied from overseas) so you’ll see semi-trailer rigs that are longer and lighter than both here and in Europe.
Lengths were regulated after World War 2 so manufacturers who were keen to make every inch count built high-set bubblenose prime movers.
Cabover engine prime movers became popular after the invention of the tilt cab.
In Europe, regulations limiting semi-trailer and rigids towing a dog trailer to 16.5m and 18.75m respectively gave rise to trucks without bonnets which maximised capacity.
The typical European combination of a single-drive cabover engine prime mover, pulling a 12m tri-axle trailer is because narrow streets demand much more manoeuvrability than elsewhere.
Japan’s heavy reliance on sea freight means trucks are still vital but they are generally less likely to undertake linehaul or bulk freight tasks.
Semi-trailer vehicles are the exception and not the rule on Japanese roads. Rigids and single drive prime movers with tandem or tri-axle trailers are the go. High torque prime movers were almost non-existent for a time.
Post-war, British-made trucks ruled the roost in Aussie roads. It was a patriotic choice, of course, but many were not suited to our long, dry and dusty roads.
Cue the take up of German and American-made vehicles, with Japanese trucks entering the market in the 1960s as they became a strong trading partner.
The spaghetti bowl of state regulations dictated what types of trucks Australians drove. Conflicting mass limits, differing axle requirements and confounding bridge formulae made coming up with a “best fit” configuration for interstate runs a vexing problem.
Of course, we now have a national law that applies in most but not all jurisdictions. Well-intentioned efforts to harmonise rules continue at glacial pace.
In a practical sense, the latest changes to weight laws will minimise the need for operators to sacrifice payload capacity if they want electric trucks with better range – a choice which would require heavier batteries.
The changes are designed to enable more operators invest in battery technology as the industry progressively moves towards the wider use of electric and other low emission vehicles.
Eventually these and other changes in regulations should mean European-sized electric powered trucks could be manufactured in Australia for the first time.
Is that a case of regulations driving change or the other way round?
It doesn’t matter much if the outcome is an industry that’s sustainable and that benefits from the safety and efficiency gains that a new generation of heavy vehicles will bring.