Delivering more freight per load at lower cost-per-ton than conventional rigs, PBS vehicles (or Smart Trucks as they’re now called) are redefining the way bulk commodities are moved by road both locally and abroad. If you’re a truck owner, you may be wondering how one gets to run such a rig. PAUL COLLINGS investigates the roll-out of Smart Truck permits in South Africa and discovers that it’s not an entirely “closed shop”.
If you’ve driven the KwaZulu-Natal N2 or N3 highway in recent months, chances are you’ve passed an abnormal-length timber truck with a yellow diamond-shaped placard on its grille. Known as a PBS (Performance-based Standards) vehicle or Smart Truck, this rigid-drawbar combination has, until recently, been one of a pair of test vehicles hauling timber for Sappi and Mondi under the banner of the RTMS (Road Transport Management System).
“A further 30 Smart Truck/PBS permits have been issued to Sappi and Mondi following successful trials of the two test units,” says Chris Stretch, director: freight transport, KwaZulu-Natal Department of Transport. “All the participating hauliers – Timber24, Super Group and Timber Logistics – are RTMS accredited and only operate these vehicles on strictly controlled, predefined routes. While these are prerequisites for the granting of PBS permits, no-one is excluded from the process.”
Open doors at KZN DoT
According to Stretch, a PBS permit costs R22 000 per annum, while a mandatory annual RTMS audit costs in the region of R8 000, depending on the size of the fleet. “We don’t want to grant PBS permits to all and sundry but those operators who can furnish RTMS accreditation, compliant vehicle designs and accurate route plans are welcome to contact the KZN DoT to discuss obtaining a permit.”
The efficacy of Smart Trucks to overcome several challenges facing the truck transport and bulk supply chain sectors has been proven by the two test units, carrying an average of 19% more payload than conventional rigs and using 13% less fuel per ton delivered. As reported in the April 2010 issue of FOCUS, being up to 25% longer than conventional timber trucks, Smart Trucks are safer than their predecessors and effectively reduce the number of trucks on our roads, thus reducing CO2 emissions, congestion and road damage. They also have the potential to significantly reduce the number of vehicles required to move product from plantation to mill, effectively easing the impact on road infrastructure and traffic flow.
The CSIR’s Paul Nordengen, who has been spearheading the introduction of both RTMS and the Smart Truck programme in South Africa, says, “The PBS approach can also work very effectively within existing legislation, and the vehicle simulation technology used to design PBS vehicles shows that certain truck configurations perform better than others in respective applications. Using these Finite Element Analysis design tools is like looking at something with a new set of glasses and road authorities and operators alike should adopt the technology to improve the efficiency and safety of road-going trailers in general.”
PBS spreads its wings
The momentum generated by the forestry industry through its PBS trials has carried the project into other applications, notably general freight, mining and sugarcane transport.
According to Riaan Barnard, special projects engineer at Crickmay & Associates (a leading supply chain efficiency consultancy that has been instrumental in the successful implementation of RTMS in South Africa), “PBS is aimed primarily at increasing the achievable vehicle payload and, based on investigations being undertaken in the coal and timber industries, it is expected that the current average 31-ton payload of coal trucks can be increased to approximately 48 ton, using the PBS guidelines. This has the potential to significantly decrease transport costs in the coal industry.”
The capital investment required for PBS vehicles, relative to existing vehicles, is approximately 31% more per-vehicle, adds Barnard. “However, when applying the principle over larger tonnages, the overall capital required decreases, because fewer vehicles are required as a result of higher payloads. In comparison, operating and maintenance costs are also reduced, based on lower fuel consumption and fewer vehicles on the road. A significant reduction in carbon emissions has been recorded in the timber industry, which was achieved through a reduction in the amount of fuel used per ton of product delivered,” he said.
With the enhanced cost efficiencies Smart Trucks bring to the logistics chain, the word is spreading fast amongst local hauliers operating in divergent applications. While Stretch and the KZN DoT have taken a bold political step in implementing PBS in the province, other provincial DoT offices aren’t quite as ready for this ‘new wave’ of truck transport.
Says Nordengen: “Integral to the process of acquiring a Smart Truck/PBS permit is obtaining ‘Principle Approval’ from the provincial DoT authority upon whose roads the rig will operate. While the National DoT has embraced the PBS concept and has pledged its support ‘in principle’, achieving buy-in and the necessary approval from provincial DoT offices can be a very slow process. Mpumalanga is a case in point, where both coal and timber industries are vying for PBS permits but are enjoying very little support from the DoT office in Nelspruit.”
Suppliers in the mix
By contrast, both truck OEMs and trailer manufacturers are actively involved in promoting the roll-out of Smart Trucks in this country. “Our customers are hungry for permits to operate these vehicles,” says Johan Hagg, sales executive at Afrit, manufacturer of one of South Africa’s first PBS trailers. “Of course, before we discuss building a Smart Truck trailer, the transport operator needs to be RTMS accredited. From this point we start by analysing the application and the routes the vehicle will travel on. With these specifics to hand, along with those of a suitable prime mover, Afrit can commence the design process using vehicle simulation software to determine optimum design parameters as far as performance, efficiency and safety are concerned. Build-strength is obviously a point of departure on a PBS unit, but so is low tare mass, which is why Afrit only uses Domex steel and premium-quality running gear.”
According to Christo Kleynhans, product specialist at Mercedes-Benz South Africa, “we are supplying both 6×4 and 8×4 prime-movers to current PBS permit holders to assist in the effective load-mass distribution across axle groups. Complying with specific bridge formulae is central to the permit-granting process. We are currently investigating the possibility of using abnormal-load bridge formulae for PBS vehicles because they offer greater safety margins and with additional axles fitted to the PBS truck tractor, are less damaging to our road pavements.”
Hauling in the laggards
Evidently, PBS is not a ‘closed shop’ and plans are afoot to grant permits to transporters hauling commodities other than timber, coal and sugar, says Stretch. “The KZN DoT is putting pressure on other provinces to grant PBS permits. Barloworld Logistics is the first general freight haulier to gain RTMS accreditation and it is just a matter of time before it is granted a PBS permit to run the N3 route between Durban and Gauteng. The wheels are in motion and the Smart Truck research programme is likely to expand.”
While Transnet may be ramping up its freight-by-rail infrastructure, it is clear that road transport will have to continue being the primary conveyor of freight across South Africa. “Smart Trucks offer a viable and sustainable solution to so many problems facing not only the road transport industry, but industry, government and the general public as well,” says Stretch.
Barnard concludes by saying, “PBS is becoming an established fact in South Africa. The demonstration of good governance by companies seeking PBS permits is the key to creating the necessary trust with both the public and government, which is ultimately the prerequisite before any concessions will be granted for operating Smart Trucks on South African roads.”