Prime Mover Magazine

NRMA: Breaking new ground

NRMA: Breaking new ground

Detailed information on the performance of the Australian heavy vehicle fleet has long been inaccessible for the general public, most often because it simply didn’t exist. Roadside assistance specialist NRMA Business Motoring has now attempted to change that.

Commercial road transport is the lifeblood of the Australian economy, with both national and international businesses relying on it to work as smoothly as possible. But even the best maintained truck is not immune to a breakdown – making it vital for transport businesses large and small to be prepared for the worst case.

“Let’s face it – breakdown cover is hardly the most stimulating topic, but it’s one of those things you really need to have for peace of mind,” says Matthew Beattie, Head of NRMA Business Motoring. “Even though commercial vehicles are far more reliable nowadays than they once were, experience has shown that mechanical or electrical problems can strike at any time. The question is, are you prepared for such a scenario or not?”

He adds, “Imagine you break down with a load of fresh produce on the back and the clock ticking and you don’t have a policy in place. I don’t think I exaggerate if I say you will face a perfect storm of problems, which could prove extremely stressful for everyone involved – both up and down the supply chain.”

Agrees Dr Peter Hart, Chairman of the Australian Road Transport Suppliers’ Association (ARTSA) and a nationally recognised heavy vehicle roadworthiness expert. “In today’s highly competitive transport market, where every minute is accounted for, a breakdown is always a bit of a nightmare for the transport company,” he says. “Every professional fleet should have a clear process in place on how to react to a breakdown.

“Think about it – you may end up stuck on the roadside needing to make ad hoc arrangements, potentially placing you at personal risk – especially if the breakdown happens far from head office, or in the dead of night. Your first priority must be to protect your people and the public from road trauma or from violence. A disabled vehicle creates vulnerability. Secondly, you could face an expensive bill for repairs and towing, or for a last-minute sign-up to a breakdown service, which will always cost you more than arranging cover in advance.”

Peter says the reasons for a breakdown can be as varied as Australia’s truck population – from the tow coupling through to rub on the wiring harness. But it’s tyre and wheel issues that have recently caused a stir in the industry. “Wheel-end problems are definitely an issue, particularly on trailers,” he says. “Faulty tyre pressure, bearing failure due to excessive bearing play and failed bearing lubrication are still an everyday occurrence in Australia. Trailers are most vulnerable because they are the poor cousin of the prime mover and maintenance is often overdue. Excessive wheel-nut tightening torque in the workshop is another problem. Studs can be stretched and it is also possible to crack an aluminium wheel that way.” 

Even though he says wheel-end issues are likely to be the number one breakdown cause, Peter adds that they are also the easiest to prevent. “Frankly, pending wheel-end failures could and should be dealt with in the pre-trip or at inspection during the driver’s break. We all like to see the pilot inspecting the plane on the tarmac, so why not expect the driver to walk around and inspect the truck wheels at every break stop?

“I also like to see mechanics lifting wheels at every service and giving them a shake and a spin. That way they will soon learn whether they are developing bearing problems.”

Also high on Peter’s hit list are electrical issues, which he says can easily lead to a fully-fledged truck fire. “Developing shorts on the main cables will cause incandescent lights to flutter. So why not drive with lights on? There is a road safety benefit to be had as well,” he says.

“The same is true for braking issues. Brake maintenance is not hard, it’s just a constant challenge, as brakes are wearing parts that need to be checked every couple of weeks. Keep on top of the maintenance and you will keep out of trouble – because any brake-related problem is likely to draw an out-of-service cannery and that means a call-out before the vehicle can be moved.”

In his role at NRMA Business Motoring, Matthew has come across many a ‘do or die’ scenario following a breakdown, prompting him and his team to dive deep into the topic and try to quantify Peter’s feedback*. “NRMA Business Motoring is currently looking after businesses with more than 6,000 vehicles consisting of trucks and heavy vehicles within their fleet Australia-wide, so it was only logical to take the vast amount of data generated in helping them to shed some light on the topic and see just how common a breakdown really is,” he says – pointing out that to simplify the process and align the research with market feedback, the team started with the state of New South Wales, and the 2014-15 Financial Year as the initial time window. “We thought it made sense to start such a big project by analysing our home state first. In co-operation with Prime Mover, we will then look at the rest of the nation to create the first complete breakdown overview for the commercial vehicle market.”

In analysing the stockpile of NSW and ACT data NRMA Business Motoring has compiled since July 2014, Matthew and his team were able to verify Dr Peter Hart’s assumption that wheel and tyre issues are a key breakdown cause, followed by electrical faults and defects of the diesel fuel system. Transmission problems also rank high on the list, while substantial engine work is much less common. In a positive for the industry, steering and suspension issues seem to be almost non-existent in NRMA Business Motoring’s FY 2015 data for the state of NSW, at least not to a degree where they would lead to a breakdown service call.

The top breakdown reason on the ranking NRMA Business Motoring has compiled for Prime Mover, however, is the battery. Dr Peter Hart explains, ”Electrical loads are steadily increasing. Yesterday it was the starter motor load that the batteries felt. Today it might be the steady amperage to drive electronic equipment through the lay-off times. Batteries don’t like extreme heat and they don’t like vibrations. Occasionally the alternator voltage needs to be checked because batteries also don’t like only being half charged.”

Trouble with the cooling system is also part of NRMA Business Motoring’s roadside call top ten. According to Peter, the issue with cooling systems is mainly with connections. “The more connections you have, the greater the potential for loss of coolant - the main failure mode for the cooling system. Of course a fleet is as much in the hands of the truck OEM as its own shops here, but the specification of long-life coolants, premium hoses and solid clamps, along with technicians trained to look for and deal with cooling system issues early will always help,” says the expert.

Next to identifying the top breakdown causes in NSW, Matthew’s research team was also able to create a precise map of where roadside assistance is commonly needed, with the Sydney metro region topping the list. “Naturally, you see the majority of breakdowns occur along the main trade route on the eastern seaboard,” says Matthew. “But there is a distinct spike on the Hume Highway between Goulburn and Campbelltown, for example, as well as on the M1 between Wollongong and Port Botany.”

According to Matthew’s research, the M1 between Gosford and Newcastle is extremely “breakdown prone”, with a breakdown density close to the one seen in metro Sydney, where traffic has been increasing steadily over the past decade. “Sydney and Newcastle make for the majority of the work we carry out in NSW, but it’s the strip in between where we see a lot of movement, too. Naturally there is an increased probability with more heavy vehicle traffic in the area, but maybe there is something else to it that we haven’t uncovered yet.”

In country NSW, NRMA Business Motoring’s research team has identified breakdown clusters around the transport hubs of Wagga Wagga, Dubbo and Tamworth, with the town of Griffith a fourth hotspot. “Again, we can see that there is increased breakdown activity around a classic trucking route, the Newell Highway,” says Matthew. “What’s interesting, though, is that we see more clustered call-outs in this area as for example on the Hume, which may have to do with the quality of the road in certain spots.”

With the average response time for a heavy-duty truck breakdown coming in at just under 40 minutes and the result for light-duty equipment around the 35-minute mark, Matthew says the NRMA Business Motoring program is setting a benchmark in responsiveness for the state of NSW. “We are extremely happy with such a figure, knowing that any issue will be attended to so quickly, wherever it may be. That’s exactly the outcome we were hoping to achieve.”

With the geographic breakdown now providing NRMA Business Motoring with a detailed map of potential breakdown hotspots, Matthew says reducing the average response time even more will be the organisation’s next goal. “We’re all about continuous improvement and making the whole breakdown experience less painful, so we will use the data to keep streamlining our processes and ensure our patrol services are equipped with the most appropriate tools, such as a torque multiplier, heavy duty bottlejack or a simple battery tester,” he explains – even though the business NRMA Business Motoring is dealing in is everything but predictable.

Vehicle age, for example, won’t necessarily give away the likelihood of a breakdown – even though there is the odd exception. While the majority of vehicles NRMA Business Motoring attended to in 2015 has been manufactured somewhere in between 2000 and 2012, the years 2000, 2007 and 2008 rank especially high on the list, with 2010 the clear standout. Expectedly, new vehicles built in 2014/15 are the least breakdown prone.

While the spike in the 2010 bracket is anyone’s guess, a 2011 interview with Bruce Stockton, then Vice President of Maintenance for US transport giant Con-way, might give Australian businesses a clue. Back then, he told Prime Creative correspondent Steve Sturgess that 2010 (US) engines were throwing “a lot of fault codes”, which meant the trucks either had to make their way to a dealership or back to a terminal to check out the situation. Surprisingly, he said the issue was occurring much more often on 2010-plated vehicles than with any other year of manufacture.

Staying in the time category, the weekday with the highest breakdown risk, according to NRMA Business Motoring, is Monday, with the weekend ranking lowest on the breakdown risk table. With overall call-outs almost stagnant over the last Financial Year as compared to the previous one, the risk pattern remained almost unchanged, with slightly less incidents reported during the week and a marginal increase on Friday and Saturday. “What has changed most compared to 2014 is that we don’t see the same early morning spike anymore,” says Matthew. “In the past, there was a distinct call-out surge between 6:00 and 9:00 am. While that bracket is still somewhat of a rush hour for us today, it seems like the time window has widened a little, with more activity now visible in the early afternoon.”

Over the course of the full Financial Year, NRMA Business Motoring has found early January to be the busiest time, with a distinct drop in call-outs in mid-February. Q2 has proved to be the most stable quarter for the company, with call-outs steadily around the 700 mark, while 2015 also saw a short-lived spike in August. With increased holiday traffic around the New Year, Matthew says the risk of getting stuck in stop and go traffic, in combination with added stress and heat, may lead to a more fragile vehicle fleet. What’s more, delivery volumes spike during the holiday season, with added traffic on the road until Australia Day and beyond.

What’s most important, says Matthew, is that the person behind the wheel, as well as all back office staff, have a plan of what to do when the infamous ‘check engine’ warning light comes on or any other issue occurs while a commercial vehicle is still in transit – even though ARTSA head Dr Peter Hart says that regular maintenance and inspection by drivers could avoid 90 per cent of the most common problems NRMA Business Motoring has detected.

“The unfortunate reality is that issues do occur, and even though we now have a better understanding of where and why they happen, there is still no alternative to playing it safe,” he says. “Any roadside issue could result in additional costs for repair, towing, downtime, re-dispatching another truck, the lost opportunity cost for the truck that is down and in some cases, result in the loss of a customer. Our research hasn’t covered it, but I would assume the majority of transport businesses would rather have peace of mind than take that risk.”

For more info, contact NRMA on 1300 556 947 or visit the website.

The full story has appeared in the November edition of Prime Mover. To get your copy, click here.

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