A never-ending story

Just as Bob Pearson is known as the intellectual father of the B-double, Greg Byrnes must be considered a key figure in the adoption of modern braking technology in Australia. His 38 years in the industry – 19 with the Road Brake Division of the now-defunct Westinghouse Brake & Signal company and just as many with Sydney-based Airbrake Corporation – have seen him participate in every major review of Australian braking legislation since the 1980s, and earned him a reputation as a fierce advocate of mandating modern safety technology, especially in the often-overlooked articulated trailer space.

Following Bob’s foray into high productivity vehicle design, Greg was instrumental in adapting the industry’s first 12-volt anti-lock braking system (ABS) to a B-double, for example, and it was also him who first made it work on a triple road train – in both cases using technology from German ABS pioneer WABCO on behalf of petroleum giant Shell.

Without Greg’s unwavering commitment to overcoming the technical challenges that came with extending the standard European ABS system to reliably work on a 19m vehicle, some say the B-double may have never been quite as revolutionary as it was.

Unlike Bob, however, Greg has yet to find closure for his lifetime project: “It frustrates me every day that Australia has still not mandated trailer ABS,” he says. “I’ve committed my entire career to lobbying for it, but it’s still not standard. Despite all the achievements we’ve made as an industry, that’s a big disappointment.”

He adds, “We are leading the world in high productivity vehicle design, but we’re a third world country when it comes to trailer braking. WABCO, a company I’ve been working with for most of my career, introduced the first Electronic Braking System (EBS) for trailers in 1998 and the technology is now into its seventh generation. Australia, meanwhile, is still talking about the system that came before it.”

Now semi-retired, the self-confessed ‘tech head’ says committing to ABS early on would have simplified the imminent transition to EBS, a key milestone Australian trucking has to pass to not fall behind in the global innovation race. As he points out, “early in my career, product lifetime was measured in decades.

“Today, the electronics that now pervade every aspect of vehicle operation including brakes are updated every 12 to 18 months, and innovation cycles keep shortening. Keeping up with change will become increasingly difficult as we drag out the issue.”

Despite his frustration with the Australian indecisiveness on ABS, Greg says braking technology has still improved greatly during his long time in the industry. “We’ve seen many an evolutionary leap,” he says. “The advent of ADR 38 and the parking brake requirement that came with it, for example, uncovered an inherent weaknesses in trailer axle booster brackets that we were able to address with improved spring brake design. Over time, we’ve detected a lot of these small, but crucial design issues that helped make predominantly overseas sourced braking system components more suitable for our harsh climate.

“The many businesses that voluntarily adopted modern technologies naturally also made a difference. Getting an electronic braking system to work on an Australian trailer has its challenges, so they helped us push the bar in practice even when the political debate faltered.”

For the future, Greg says innovation in the heavy vehicle space will likely be less visible to the eye than it was when Australia embraced the B-double, but even more impactful. “Just like with ABS and EBS, you often don’t see how technology is changing modern trucking. Under the surface, however, the revolution is in full swing.”

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