A flurry of new vehicle releases, increased grants and tax benefits, and plain old economics have helped electric vehicle sales boom in 2020. U.K. sales figures show battery vehicles tripled their market share among new vehicle sales from 3 percent to 9 percent. Combined sales of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids across 18 Western European countries have topped 1 million, closing in on double last year’s tally, according to one analyst.

But what about freight and cargo trucks? Cars make up 44.3 percent of EU transport emissions, but light- and heavy-duty trucks contribute a sizable 27.9 percent as well.

This week a group of seven truck makers, including Volvo, Scania, Ford and Daimler, agreed to stop selling diesel-powered trucks by 2040, a decade earlier than previously planned.

Last week, policymakers in Brussels said they would look to cut road tolls for low-carbon trucks. Under the plans, zero-emission trucks would get a minimum of a 50 percent discount through April 2023 on the tolls charged for use of some European highways, which can reach as much €25,000 a year, according to the think tank Transport & Environment. Discounts of up to 100 percent will be allowed until 2025, after which the discounts would have to be between 50 and 75 percent.

Electrification and hydrogen are both on the table. Germany has an electric highway pilot with overhead cables for trucks to hook on to. Volvo released an all-electric lineup last month that will go into production next year.

It’s also worth noting that the EU’s other strategy to decarbonize heavy-duty vehicle emissions is to double the volume of freight moved by rail by 2050.

Shell boosts hydrogen

As for hydrogen, Shell and a group of truck makers revealed a new partnership Tuesday aimed at making it the fuel of choice for decarbonizing road freight vehicles. 

The H2Accelerate program, which also includes Austrian oil and gas firm OMV, Daimler, Volvo and Iveco, will seek to synchronize investments in early-stage hydrogen truck and fueling infrastructure to enable the 2020s to become a “decade long scale-up.”

It envisions public money and policy support for initial projects scaling to thousands of trucks being manufactured and a European network of refueling stations by the second half of this decade. Volvo made 233,000 trucks in 2019.

“The prize is clear. By boosting scale in a big way, hydrogen-fueled trucks will need to become available to customers at or below the cost of owning and operating a diesel truck today,” said Elisabeth Brinton, EVP for Shell's New Energies unit, in a statement. “This means truck customers will need to have access to a fully zero-emissions vehicle with a similar refueling time, range and cost range compared to the vehicles in use today.”

The trade body Hydrogen Europe expects 10,000 hydrogen trucks on Europe’s roads by 2025 and 100,000 by 2030, according to a position paper released this month.

Be it electrification, batteries, hydrogen or shifting freight to the rails, Europe is pursuing multiple routes to decarbonizing heavy road transport. These strategies raise some questions about the long-term fortunes of synthetic fuels and biofuels.

Martin Lundstedt, president and CEO of the Volvo Group, further highlighted the preference for hydrogen and electric solutions.

"In the future, the world will be powered by a combination of battery-electric and fuel-cell electric vehicles, along with other renewable fuels to some extent," he said in a statement.