It’s been said that we’re living in the exponential age, so that the rate of change gets faster year upon year.
For most of my professional life, whilst we’ve had economic ups and downs, the world has generally been stable.
I have dim recollections of the cold war and a period of high inflation when a child growing up in the late seventies and eighties.
But while alive, one could hardly say that I lived through those times. My grandfathers lived during the Second World War although they didn’t serve on the front line.
One was on the farm working to feed the nation and the other an engineer making weapons at the Maribyrnong ordnance factory.
The farmer maintained a stable of over 30 Clydesdales working the land in Maffra, the engineer worked on configuring the radar system for the Bofors gun, ensuring the anti-aircraft autocannons hit their target if Japanese fighters came over the horizon.
I’ve always thought about how much the world changed during the lives of my now passed grandfathers.
It’s hard to fathom the fact that I’ve probably witnessed more significant change than both and my children will probably witness double again. I was born in the late seventies but remember the milk man jogging behind an unmanned horse and cart, dashing door to door delivering milk in re-usable glass bottles.
Until now it’s been a slow burn. Change has been constant, and while there have been significant geopolitical events like 9/11 and the global financial crisis, we’ve been able to muddle through with life rolling on essentially the same.
Post-Pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and with diesel prices over $2.30 at last fill, one does sense a tectonic shift in the global order.
Many believe it’s the fourth turning as Generation Y ascends and the last of the silent generation pass away, an event that happens every 80-100 years.
The internet is full of prophecy and much of it is compelling, predicting the decline of the American empire and the rise of China.
We’re all impacted by these significant macroeconomic trends, but what does it really mean for the transport industry? Just over 100 years ago, in 1920, the 1941 km Princes Hwy was opened to connect Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.
The Sturt Highway came in 1933, the Bruce in 1934, the Hume fully sealed by 1940, the Eyre opened in 1942 and the North-West Coastal Highway in 1944.
The National Highway network along with the demands and constraints on rail and shipping associated with World War II kick-started the era of Australian trucking.
Linfox was founded in 1956 and the first Kenworth was imported into Australia in 1960. The UNECE Vehicle Standards were formed with the 1958 Agreement and Australian Design Rules came into force with the 1989 Motor Vehicle Standards Act.
State-based regulations and enforcement of truck size and axle weight limits began getting serious in the 1970s.
We’ve since seen PBS and other regulatory reforms shape the transport industry. However, the overarching paradigm of on highway diesel truck has not changed significantly since inception some 80 years ago.
Change has been on the horizon for decades as have concerns about environment and climate change.
During my time in the industry there’s been a long list of new technologies attempting to shake up the industry and supplant the diesel engine.
As a young engineer I worked on Permodrive, a regenerative drive shaft which stored braking energy in a hydraulic accumulator to improve fuel efficiency.
It generated a lot of interest and start-up capital, but the dream ended when the Rudd government withdrew R&D funding.
We’ve also seen CNG and LNG vehicles come and go with little success.
While the transport industry has continually innovated, it demands cost effective and reliable vehicles and those industry stalwarts that have lived throughout this incredible period of change have, perhaps correctly, concluded that zero emission and autonomous vehicles would not occur in their lifetime. There was a massive road infrastructure boom between 1920 and 1944.
There are essentially no living Australians who remember a time prior to the national highway system.
The Big Build underway will see billions in new highways and tunnels through our capital cities and, by 2040 hopefully the thousands of bridges built to support the vast Australian road network will have been upgraded to modern standards.
Infrastructure and regulatory reforms to enable autonomous vehicles on our roads is a topic of debate globally.
With Australian mining companies using these vehicles in controlled environments for some time we’ve had a chance to lead the way.
However, rolling this out onto public roads is still a daunting prospect with the limitations of vehicle control without human interaction and the legal accountability of such systems on the road proving a high hurdle to leap.
Recent incidents with passive vehicle automation being blamed for hit and run accidents provide an example of the difficulties to overcome.
Stronger roads and bridges are needed to support the higher axle weights of electric trucks and buses.
We need a network of electric fast-charging and hydrogen refuelling stations. Our roads need to be upgraded to be smoother, with fewer potholes, sealed shoulders, safety barriers, better lighting, consistent line marking to safely accommodate autonomous vehicles.
The first Diesel truck was available in 1908 but the trucking industry didn’t take off until after national highway infrastructure was in place and two world wars were fought and won.
Hopefully we can avoid World War III and just get on with the business of building the infrastructure for the next century and herald in a new era of Australian Road Transport.