Reducing the national truck fleet age

Truck sales in Australia hit a peak in 2007, when 38,131 new heavy vehicles were delivered. If the pace of sales over the first quarter of 2018 continues for the remainder of the year, we will rewrite the record books with a new all-time sales record. 2017 saw overall truck sales fall short of the 2007 mark by 1,306 vehicles, however first-quarter sales this year are up over 2017 by more than 1,000 trucks, putting the market on track for a record year if sales continue at this rate.

The greater outlook for heavy vehicles in Australia is not as positive, though. Slow truck sales over the past 10 or so years, coupled with the ever-increasing freight task, have led to ageing of the Australian truck fleet, from an average of 14.4 years in 2007 to 14.9 in 2017. This is according to numbers published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Motor Vehicle Census for trucks with a gross vehicle mass (GVM) of greater than 4.5 tonnes. While the age increase does not appear that significant at first glance, consider this – it would take a decade of record year-on-year new truck sales to get back to an average fleet age of 14.4 years, according to the Truck Industry Council’s (TIC) historical T-Mark new truck sales data. Yes, 10 years of record sales between now and 2027/28 to get back to the fleet age we had in 2007. And the likelihood of a decade of record year-on-year sales growth is, in a word, unlikely.

So why are the TIC and I so concerned about the age of the Australian truck fleet? There are a number of reasons.

First, the fleet is so old that almost 42 per cent of its trucks were manufactured before 2003, when little or no exhaust-emission standards applied.

Second, these vehicles don’t have any modern truck safety features fitted, such as front underrun protection systems (FUPS) or electronic stability control (ESC). In fact, most of these trucks don’t even have an anti-lock braking system (ABS).

Third, these older trucks are less productive, not fitted with road-friendly suspension and unable to partake in higher-mass-limit schemes. This reduces the overall productivity of our truck fleet, which in turn increases freight costs for local and export goods.

Finally, the technology introduced into new trucks takes decades to permeate the national fleet.

It is this last point that I would like to explain by way of an example. The Australian Government introduced ADR84/00, or FUPS, on 1 January 2012. As most readers will know, a FUPS prevents or reduces the likelihood of the occupants of a light vehicle becoming trapped underneath a truck, and will ensure that the safety features of the car are correctly deployed in the event of a truck or light vehicle crash. The ADR84/00 Regulation Impact Statement estimated that in 2017, 11 lives per year could be saved with the fitment of a FUPS, if the entire truck fleet above 12-tonnes GVM were fitted with FUPS. The TIC estimates that due to current take-up rates and fleet age, just over 20 per cent of the Australian truck fleet was fitted with a FUPS in 2017, a saving of only two to three lives. In fact, the TIC estimates that a 95 per cent fitment rate of FUPS will not be achieved before 2039.

Is that a satisfactory safety outcome for Australian road users? The TIC and I would suggest not.

It has been a long road to recovery for truck sales in Australia. It will be a far longer road before we see a significant reduction in the national truck fleet age, and key advanced heavy vehicle safety and environmental and productivity improvements penetrating throughout the national fleet. It is obvious to the TIC that the provision of operator incentives by both federal and state governments is essential to the renewal of our truck fleet in a time-efficient manner. Those incentives could include a mix of lower registration and toll charges, accelerated new-truck deprecation, low-interest loans, additional axle masses and low-emission zones or roads to encourage the take-up of new or newer trucks. Without these, or similar, operator incentives, the road to a younger truck fleet looks further away than ever.

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