(March 1) You’d think record driver shortages, near-record fuel costs, insurance and regulatory headaches and other problems might make trucking companies think twice before upgrading fleets.

Instead, many are going on buying binges — record binges, in fact.

About 44,000 Class 8 trucks were sold in January, making it the best-selling month ever, said Ken Vieth, senior partner at ACT Research Co. LLC, Columbus, Ind., which tracks truck sales for the industry.

About 80% of those trucks are tractors, and 20% are straight-load trucks, Vieth said.

Despite the problems the industry faces, Vieth isn’t surprised by his company’s findings. That’s because on Jan. 1, new Environmental Protection Agency regulations governing vehicle emissions will go into effect. When an earlier round of regulations went into effect four years ago, ACT Research tallied a similar spike in sales.

“The government has built in peaks and valleys in the sales of trucks,” Vieth said. “Companies made the investment in ’02, and now they’re making it again.”

This time around, though, it’s a lot easier on companies’ pocketbooks, Vieth said. In 2002, the country was still smarting from a recession. In 2006, better economic times make it easier to upgrade, he said.

2007 SURCHARGES

The reason to upgrade now instead of in 2007, when the new regulations take effect, is a simple one, Vieth said. Many trucking companies will slap surcharges on their ’07 models because of the higher cost of the lower-emissions engines.

Tampa, Fla.-based Volvo Trucks NA, for instance, announced Feb. 13 that it would add a $7,500 technology surcharge to all of its trucks sold in 2007 to offset the cost of compliance with the new emissions standards, according to a news release.

The price increase includes Volvo trucks equipped with Cummins ISX engines, as well as Volvo D11, D13 and D16 engines, according to the release. The surcharge covers work including the installation of new technology for the engines, exhaust aftertreatment systems, cooling systems enhancements and changes to electronic engine controls.

Because of the cost of upgrading trucks to get ready for the new standards, Volvo’s profits in the fourth quarter of 2005 were down 11%.

Similar emissions standards go into effect in Europe next fall.

VEHICLE EFFECT UNKNOWN

What makes truck manufacturers nervous, Vieth said, is the new standards’ unknown effect on the vehicles’ operation.

“It will be a new product, and we don’t know how reliable and durable it’s going to be,” he said. “The new trucks may have fewer service requirements, or they may have more. There’s a level of uncertainty.”

Trucks purchased before 2007 don’t have to have engines that meet next year’s standards, Vieth said.