Steerable Axles to Improve Productivity

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    Final Report

    December 2002

    Prepared by

    Brendan Coleman

    Peter Sweatman

  • National Road Transport Commission

    Steerable Axles to Improve Productivity and Access

    Report Prepared by: Brendan Coleman and Peter Sweatman

    ISBN: 1 877093 20 3


    Date: December 2002

    ISBN: 1 877093 20 3

    Title: Steerable Axles to Improve Productivity and Access

    Address: National Road Transport CommissionLevel 5/326 William StreetMELBOURNE VIC 3000


    Type of report: Research Report

    Objectives: Increased road transport productivity through the useof steerable axles.

    NRTC Programs: Productivity and Regulatory Reform

    Abstract: The NRTC commissioned Roaduser Systems Pty Ltdto investigate the performance of steerable axlesincluding their benefits and costs. The assessmentswere made using the Performance Based Standards(PBS) criteria at the time of the study (late 2001).

    Part of the brief included the investigation of thebenefits and impacts of marginal increases in semi-trailer length and in particular to the wider applicationof the length increase from 14.6m (48ft) to 14.9m(49ft) recently granted to refrigerated trailers in NewSouth Wales.

    The report suggests that a 15m semi-trailerincorporating a steerable axle would offer substantialproductivity based economic benefits within currentvehicle performance parameters. However, it wouldinvolve increasing the current overall vehicle lengthfrom 19m to 20m.

    It identifies that the existing regulatory regime doesnot include quad axle groups. The treatment of thisaxle type, with road friendly suspension, is thereforenot currently defined. The use of a steerable axle on aquad group appears to be a promising vehicleconfiguration for the industry but there are no clearguidelines on how it might be assessed.

    There is potential for significant productivity gainsfrom B-doubles using steerable axles. However,inevitably the trade-off for any productivity gains isvehicle length (and mass, if an additional axle isused).

  • The report suggests that a number of combinationvehicles could be assessed within an expandedregulatory framework (based on performancestandards). It argues for an extension of the currentregulatory framework to accommodate vehiclecombinations that could emerge with the acceptanceof steerable axles as a means for improvingmanouverability.

    Purpose: To identify opportunities for increasing vehicle accessand road transport productivity through the use ofsteerable axles.

    Key words: Steerable axles, road transport productivity,performance based standards, improvedmaneuverability, optimal trailer length, improvedaccessibility, B-doubles, quad axle groupings


    The purpose of this project was to assess the performance of steerable axles including theirbenefits and costs. As steerable axles improve the maneuverability of vehiclecombinations, the study focused on the benefits that increased length would bring to roadtransport productivity. The assessments were made using the Performance BasedStandards (PBS) criteria at the time of the study (late 2001). At the present time, thesecriteria are under review and may change from those used in the project.

    The refrigerated road transport industry had identified operational limitations to the 14.6m(48ft) refrigerated semi-trailers. They claimed that significant advantages could beachieved for their industry by increasing the maximum length of trailers (used in semi-trailer combinations) to 14.9m (49ft). The overall length of the semi-trailers would remainat 19m. However, the NRTC preferred to address the more generic question of trailerlength and included the issue for consideration in this steerable axles project.

    A number of important issues emerged from the research including the notion of a standardtrailer length and the opportunity for increasing overall vehicle length for vehicles fittedwith steerable axles, without compromising safety. Steerable axles also offered thepotential for increasing the network available for B-doubles. This would bringproductivity gains even if length were not increased. The report also highlights that quadaxle groups are not adequately catered for in the current regulatory framework.

    The report raises a number of important issues for jurisdictions and industry in thepotential application of PBS and the Commission is keen to receive comments from allstakeholders. They should be addressed to:

    Mr Tony WilsonChief ExecutiveNational Road Transport CommissionPO Box 13105LAW COURTS VIC 8010

    L5/326 William StreetMELBOURNE VIC 3000

    Telephone: (03) 9321 8444Facsimile: (03) 9326 8964



    The National Road Transport Commission (NRTC) commissioned Roaduser Systems PtyLtd (with assistance from Alross Pty Ltd) to carry out a study of the benefits, costs andpotential for length increases under PBS and performance effects of steerable axles. Thestudy included investigation of regulations affecting the use of steerable axles, and whetherthere are any current impediments to the use of steerable axles.

    The NRTC also commissioned Roaduser to investigate the benefits and impacts ofmarginal increases in semi-trailer overall length; in particular, consideration was given tothe wider application of the length increase from 14.6m (48ft) to 14.9m (49ft) recentlygranted to refrigerated trailers in New South Wales.

    The study included investigation of:

    current practices with steerable axles (including current regulations affecting steerableaxle use);

    benefits of steerable axles for a wide range of vehicle configurations (as perceived bykey stakeholders);

    benefits of marginal semi-trailer length increases;

    potential for productivity increases (through increased length and mass) with the wideruse of steerable axles throughout the Australian fleet (as defined by the primeconstraints of low-speed geometric performance);

    geometric and safety impacts of these initiatives; computer simulation assessment of awide range of vehicle configurations fitted with steerable axles was carried out; and

    productivity benefits, costs and net economic benefits of a range of initiativesdeploying steerable axles.

    Setting aside the primary (front) steering axles fitted to trucks and prime movers, a widevariety of steerables axles are available for use on multi-axle vehicles. These steerableaxles are designed for both trailing (unpowered) axles and driven axles. All of thesesteerable axle types address, in different ways, the fact that vehicle tyres operate in a sub-optimal way as soon as a vehicle unit is fitted with more than two axles and/or more thanone fixed axle. This degradation in tyre and vehicle performance can be exhibited in:

    increased tyre wear;

    increased vehicle swept path;

    increased pavement surface wear;

    increased resistance to forward motion (and increased fuel consumption); and

    potentially undesirable effects on vehicle steering control.Steerable axles offer performance improvements for all classes of heavy vehicle andprovide direct benefits to transport operators who choose to use them. Such performanceimprovements also open the way to productivity gains in road freight transport operationsbecause longer or heavier vehicles may be enabled within the constraints of theinfrastructure, traffic and safety.

    Steerable axles may also adversely affect certain areas of heavy vehicle performance,depending on the vehicle configuration and the characteristics of the steerable axle. Toaddress these issues, the dynamic performance of selected vehicles fitted with steerable

  • axles was compared with that of currently-operating vehicle configurations and with theperformance parameters being developed in the Performance Based Standards (PBS)project being carried out by the NRTC and Austroads.

    Current Practices with Steerable Axles

    While steerable axles come in a range of generic types, the most common are automotivetype steerable axles used on semi-trailers; this type of steerable axle is also available forrigid trucks and prime movers. Other types include linked-articulation axle group steeringsystems for semi-trailers.

    Steerable axles are not currently in widespread use in Australia. Current users ofautomotive-type steerable axles on triaxle semi-trailers report improved tyre wear andimproved swept path. Linked-articulation steerable axles are new and are not currentlybeing used in road transport, but offer a large improvement in swept path performance.

    Current Australian regulations mitigate against the use of automotive-type steerable axleson trailers because the rear overhang dimension may be exceeded if the rearmost fixed axleis replaced with a steerable axle. There are no current regulatory impediments to the use ofsteerable axles on rigid trucks, but little use is currently evident on this vehicle type.

    The literature suggests that steerable axles on rigid trucks may in certain cases adverselyaffect vehicle handling and control; this is much less likely on trailers. Most of theresearch involving steerable axles and vehicle dynamics has been carried out on potentialproblem areas for steerable axles, such as rigid trucks and C-dollies for multi-combination vehicles.

    Semi-Trailer Length Limits

    The tractor-semi-trailer which is a dominant Australian freight vehicle - is the onlycombination where the trailer unit has a specific length lim