Do we really need AVEs?

Dr Peter Hart, ARTSA-I Life Member.

I had two heavy vehicle owners complain to me in recent weeks about having to engage an engineer.

Both vehicles had been modified. According to Section 86 of the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL) a modification must be approved by an accredited vehicle engineer who is appointed by one of the road agencies.

The position is called an Approved Vehicle Examiner (AVE). The engineer is required to assess the truck or trailer modification against the technical standard called VSB 6, the Heavy Vehicle Modification Code.

A modification is defined in the law as: (a) addition of or removal of a component from the vehicle, or (b) a change to the vehicle from the manufacturer’s specification for that vehicle.

Installation of a ‘modification’ that is a manufacturer’s option using original equipment parts does not need an AVE approval.

One heavy vehicle owner complained to me had purchased a route-service bus with the intention of making it into a motor home.

At this time he wanted to pull out the passenger seats and install a couple of new twin coach seats. The twin seats have an approval in the ADR system and they came with integral seatbelts. They bolted into the original anchor positions on the bus. The applicable VSB 6 code is K1.

The owner’s complaints are that it is hard to get an AVE quickly and the cost is $1200 + GST. The cost is excessive considering the scale of the job.

The second heavy owner’s complaint concerns the scale of the calculations needed for the AVE to approve the installation of a tip-truck body onto a rigid truck.

The relevant VSB 6 code is J4 – tipper body design, which is applicable from 1 July 2023. Obviously, detailed calculations are needed to ensure the design is adequately strong.

The procedure is complicated and likely to be expensive. The cost of $1200 + GST in this case is understandable.

The definition of modifications that are in the HVNL covers virtually anything that could be done to a vehicle. However, in practice, there are many modifications that probably do not need an engineer’s approval.

For example, driving lights can be installed, a CB radio antenna could be attached to the mirror bracket, the original taillamp at the rear could be replaced with LED taillamps or sidelamps, non-genuine air cleaners can be installed, non-genuine brake lining installation, or a sun-visor could be fitted to the cabin above the windscreen.

These modifications would probably be acceptable to a road-side vehicle inspector at face value. Some modifications do not need an AVE approval because they are low-risk modifications.

The costs of engineering (AVE) certificates has steadily increased over the few years. I estimate they have gone up by a factor of three from $400 (2010) to $1200 (2023).

Some of the cost increase is due to additional complexity with the AVE’s reporting procedures. Furthermore, the difficulty of finding an AVE and getting the inspection done shortly has become very difficult and this hampers business. The scale of modification work is huge. About half all heavy motor vehicles are modified when new.

Perhaps 10 per cent of vehicle get modified later in the after-market. The AVE resource is currently over whelmed.

Do we need this added cost, delay and complexity ? My answer is only for high-risk modifications. The costs and complexity of the modification regulatory system has reached a level where it is no longer fit-for-purpose.

Yes, we need AVEs, but not to approve all modifications. There are many examples where regulators classify and regulate equipment safety according to risk.

For example, domestic electrical equipment can be either prescribed-meaning an approval is needed from a regulator, or non-prescribed-meaning the supplier must ensure that the device meets safety standards but no approval is needed.

The same is true for machines. For example a crane that can lift 10t needs an approval from a regulator, whereas a crane that can only lift less than 10t does not.

I propose that the VSB 6 codes be split into two categories – prescribed meaning an approval from an AVE is needed; and non-prescribed meaning the modifier must keep a technical file that justifies the design, but no approval from an AVE is required. My classification of VSB 6 codes that should be approved is shown in the Table. This is about one third of the scope of the VSB 6 codes.

Space does not allow these other codes to be printed. Codes that should not need an AVE certificate include: attachment of a tray; installation of a PTO, air supply to an accessory; moving the rear axle group back without cutting the rails; installation of approved seats and seatbelts onto original mounting points; exhaust pipe relocation; and installation of additional fuel tanks.

It is noteworthy that an insurance company might argue that a vehicle is unroadworthy unless every modification is formally approved by an AVE. The law should change to define what low risk modifications are acceptable without approval.

The modifications domain is simply over-regulated. It is notable that the Federal Regulator does not require the original (or secondary) equipment manufacturer of a new (ADR) vehicle to get any of its designs certified by an AVE (or equivalent engineer).

The contrast between the ADR system and the VSB 6 / AVE system is stark. Original equipment manufacturers are assumed to be competent and after-market modifiers are assumed to be incompetent.

I have written previously in this column about how an incompetent tip-trailer manufacturer, can obtain a federal approval in the ROVER system without having to justify the design on new vehicles. However, the small time tip trailer manufacturer/modifier is put through the ringer! I want to be clear that modifiers should comply with the design rules and with the VSB 6 requirements / guidance.

I would require heavy vehicle modifiers who work on other people’s vehicles to be registered with a state road agency or the NHVR. To keep that status they would need to share technical information with the NHVR. This information could be reviewed if the road agency or NHVR was concerned about the quality of the modification.

Additionally, I would allow supplier modifiers, who install equipment that they manufacture according to their specifications, to not require an AVE approval for any modifications they do.

This would remove the absurdity of coupling and towbar manufacturers, advanced brake system manufacturers and bus seat manufacturers not being allowed to approve installation work for systems they invented.

Furthermore, I would allow licensed motor vehicle traders to take responsibility for some low-risk modifications. It is noteworthy that modifiers who make plant equipment (which could be used on heavy vehicles) are not required to get an approval (with some exceptions).

They are required to identify the hazards, classify the risks and to control the risks. That is, to produce a hazard and risk assessment (technical file). I propose exactly the same framework for vehicle modifiers. It is time for serious reform!

Dr Peter Hart,
ARTSA-i Life Member

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