I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a recent ACT Research study predicting a massive Class 8 truck prebuy in 2026, ahead of the next round of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and California Air Resource Board emissions regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas in diesel truck exhaust.
See for yourself at HDT’s news report on the ACT Research study. Basically, it predicts that new 2027 model year Class 8 trucks could increase in price by as much as $25,000 per unit thanks to new emissions regulations. That price spike, combined with favorable economic conditions, will push fleets to load up on pre-2027 models while they can, in order to stave off those price increases and not deal with new emissions technology (which is still very much up in the air at the moment) until later.
Prebuys seem to be baked into any new emissions regulations in trucking. So, the fact that a large one is looming out there on the horizon stands to reason. But what is different about 2027 is all the new technology that is slowly finding its way into fleet applications – things like advanced driver safety systems (ADAS) autonomous control systems and alternate fuel/battery electric/ zero-emissions (BEV/ZEV) vehicle technologies. Which made me ask myself: What impact could a massive diesel truck prebuy have on them and their adoption rates in fleet applications?
A Boost for BEVs and ZEVs?
On the BEV/ZEV and alternative fuel side of things, a $25,000 price increase for a standard Class 8 tractor changes the cost delta considerably. Assuming that OEMs are reaching some degree of manufacturing scale by 2025 or 2026 (a reasonable assumption, I feel) you could start to see some degree of cost parity between diesel trucks and battery-electric or hydrogen fuel cell trucks. We ought to have some solid fleet evaluation reports/numbers on BEV and ZEV trucks in fleet operations by then, as well.
And if those numbers hold up, it’s very possible that suddenly, alt-fuel or electric trucks might become an attractive alternative for fleets that might not be interested in that technology today.
We’re not talking a strict apples-to-apples comparison, of course. There are still factors like infrastructure and shop compatibility that will have to be worked out and invested in. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of fleets took another look at electric trucks and hydrogen fuel cell powertrains if they’re staring a $25,000 per unit price increase in the face.
An Autonomous Game-Changer?
The picture is a little harder to read in terms of autonomous technology. On the one hand, I think we’re fast getting to the point where ADAS is virtually a “must have” technology for fleets, given all the truck-chasing lawyers out there and the chance of a “nuclear verdict” in the wake of a bad accident. So fleet managers may simply consider ADAS with high autonomous functionality as a standard diesel truck spec by 2026, regardless of any price increases.
This will largely come down to how autonomous technology is positioned marketing-wise in the industry then, I think.
We’re already seeing some autonomous developers align their technology with ADAS – a sort of driver safety system on Gamma Rays, like the Incredible Hulk, if you will. If that’s the case, then it’s very likely autonomous systems will simply be considered part of the ADAS package and not cut from any spec sheets.
But in terms of a pure, driver replacement tool? This is where things get really fuzzy to me. That’s because if you can completely cut a driver out of the truck – drop his or her salary and benefits straight to the bottom line… Well, that makes a $25,000 a year price increase for a new truck a lot more palatable, doesn’t it? Of course, you have to shell out more money on top of the EPA/CARB mandated price increase. But the ROI on a pure driverless truck with an additional $25,000 price increase might also suddenly make autonomous control systems a viable option for diesel-committed fleets to consider.
Now, to be clear – I have no idea how these things will shake out. But a $25,000 price increase for a new truck is a pretty significant jolt to the Class 8 market. And there’s a lot of new technology in play that could give fleets some new ways to mitigate that pain. I don’t know what will happen. But I do know it’s going to be very interesting to see how things play out.