Trucking Reforms … Or Is Australia Getting Ready For The Tesla Semi?

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While it is highly unlikely that Australians will see the Tesla Semi on our roads in the next decade, it is good news that the federal government, after intense lobbying, has increased the overall width limit for trucks from 2.5 metres to 2.55 metres as part of its trucking reforms. Although this change may seem minuscule, it will allow Australian trucking companies to purchase electric semis from the European Union (where the limit is 2.55 metres). However, imports from the USA may still be limited, as the width limit there 2.6 metres. The Tesla Semi is 2.59 metres wide. Still some work to be done.

Trucking reforms
Will they make it to Australian roads? Image courtesy of Tesla

Australia has a limited domestic truck building industry: Iveco Trucks Australia manufactures trucks in Dandenong, Victoria; Paccar Australia manufactures Kenworth and DAF trucks in Bayswater, Victoria; and Volvo Group Australia manufactures Volvo and Mack brand trucks in Wacol, Queensland. Volvo plans to build its own electric semis in Australia starting in 2027.

The time may come when we no longer need to overtake diesel semis as they toil uphill. The new electric ones may see an end to this road sport — another of the joys of the road lost to electrification. The government changes come into effect in October 2023. Trucks move about 234.6 billion tons around the country each year, which is expected to rise by 35% in the next 20 years. The Australian government is making the trucking reforms to facilitate the supply of safer trucks — both to reduce road trauma and to increase freight productivity. “Without trucks, Australia stops” is emblazoned on the back of most semi-truck trailers, and it’s true. The government estimates that this change in width may provide an extra AU$500 million boost to the economy. Wider trucks on the road should translate to more economical freight and less environmental damage. Electric trucks on the road make Australia less reliant on imported diesel.

Wider trucks will be allowed if fitted with the following safety features: “… devices to reduce blind spots, electronic stability control, advanced emergency braking, a lane departure warning system, better reflective markings, and side guards to stop pedestrians and cyclists from being caught up under the rear wheels of trucks.”

Safety devices and sensors will not count towards width and length measurements, including “front and kerb view mirrors to better see around the front-left corner of the vehicle, external parts of camera monitor systems for improved indirect vision, blind spot sensors, and cross-view mirrors to see in front of bonneted vehicles.”

Federal Assistant Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Carol Brown explains: “This Safer Freight Vehicles package responds to direct calls from industry to increase the width limit of trucks and follows extensive public consultation and feedback. These changes will be a real game changer for industry, businesses and other road users, as they will save lives by adopting technology to reduce the likelihood of crashes, while also lowering freight costs and supporting better environmental outcomes.

“Our truckies play a vital role in the Australian economy and our day to day lives, ensuring we can access the food, medicines and other goods we need. Today’s announcement will mean they can carry out their work more safely and efficiently, so they and those they share the road with can get home safe at the end of each trip.”

“Increasing the width limit of trucks brings Australia in line with major overseas markets, like the EU, which is vital if we want to increase the supply of electric trucks on our roads,” Mr Jafari of the Electric Vehicle Council said in support of the trucking reforms. Trucks produce 20% of Australia’s transport emissions.

Jafari continues: “We encourage the federal government to build on this announcement by introducing a mass concession (one thousand kg or 2206 lb minimum) for electric trucks, and making it cheaper and attractive for Australian businesses wanting to embrace this technology. More broadly, we need a National Electric Heavy Vehicle Strategy that outlines a plan to decarbonise our heavy vehicle fleet over the long haul.”

Truck Industry Council CEO Tony McMullan said, “We have 21st-century infrastructure and 20th-century trucking.” The fleet has an average age of 15 years, with 30% of trucks being older than 20 years. Obviously, it’s a sector ripe for disruption, perhaps even for conversion, as Janus Trucks is promoting.

Trucking reforms
Lex and David with an earlier conversion. Photo courtesy Majella Waterworth.

Emissions and safety standards were meagre 20 years ago, with trucks built without anti-lock braking and stability control, standard on today’s builds, as well as in-built fatigue and distraction sensors. Mr McMullan added: “The Euro VI technology is heavier than the Euro V technology. In order to maintain the productivity of the mass-constrained truck in transitioning to a Euro VI vehicle, there needs to be an increase in the mass allowed.” Another trucking reform.

Negotiations between the federal government, all states, territories, the National Transport Commission, and the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator on increases to weight limits are well advanced and Mr McMullen expects that all states will sign off on the mass increase. South Australia is currently conducting a trial allowing heavier than permitted electric trucks (up to 400 kg heavier) to travel certain routes.

South Australia’s Department of Infrastructure and Transport will “monitor the road infrastructure on which these vehicles operate using telematics technology to better understand the vehicle’s performance and compatibility with infrastructure and the associated cost impacts. As part of the access trial arrangements, operators must ensure that their prime movers are fitted with a range of safety features, including underrun protection, electronic braking and lane departure warnings,” the spokesperson said. “These vehicles will also be monitored closely through telematics monitoring application technology and smart onboard mass management.”

The Australian trucking industry is comprised of small businesses, most them being owner operators. In 2022, only about 1000 had more than 20 employees. These businesses are facing the multiple challenges of high fuel prices, supply chain constraints, skills shortages, and an aging workforce. All in a low margin industry. They will need support to go electric.

The federal government is consulting with stakeholders to produce a Transport and Infrastructure Next Zero Roadmap and Action Plan. Tony McMullen says that additional incentives, “both regulatory and or financial, will be needed to achieve take-up at scale.” Then there is the vexed issue of the effect of heavier vehicles on road maintenance.

Financial incentives to purchase a safer and more carbon friendly truck could include depreciation allowances, tax offsets for low emissions vehicles, perhaps even rebates, as many states have introduced to improve electric car take up.

“When it comes to low to zero emissions, you’ve got the situation where an electric truck might be twice, two or three times the purchase price of a diesel truck, or hydrogen truck could be as much as four times,” McMullen said. “So unless we fill that [cost] gap through an incentive, a financial incentive, well, you’re going to have a situation where people aren’t going to go near that vehicle.”

Australian Trucking Association’s McKinley said that local distribution services are “ideal candidates for electrification and they are available.” A joint Electric Vehicle Council and ATA report found that total-cost-of-ownership comparisons with ICE trucks demonstrated that they were equal. Thus, there exists significant potential to electrify the urban freight fleet.

As trucking reforms receive the support they need, we can expect to see more electric trucks on the road, not just semis, but also the whole range of logistic support.

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David Waterworth

David Waterworth is a retired teacher who divides his time between looking after his grandchildren and trying to make sure they have a planet to live on. He is long on Tesla [NASDAQ:TSLA].

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