A story of transition: How Europe’s faring in its move to zero-emission trucks and buses

tl;dr – Zero-emission sales of trucks and (especially) buses are on the rise, but a lack of long-range options for Europe’s highest polluting vehicles hampers progress.

Few dispute that Europe’s trucks and buses need to decarbonize, and even fewer dispute the scale of the challenge that lies ahead. These behemoths of the road are responsible for 25% of Europe’s road transport emissions, despite only accounting for 2.5% of vehicles. Last year, we published a deep-dive analysis into the current state of the heavy-duty market, and how manufacturers are poised for the inevitable zero-emission transition. Here we revisit the story and provide an update into how the market has continued to fare.

There are many sides to every story, so let’s take a look at the two biggest chapters here: demand and supply.

Demand: Low but growing fast

Few zero-emission trucks have yet found their way to the road. In 2021, zero-emission trucks made up just 230 of Europe’s quarter of a million heavy truck sales (that is, trucks with a gross vehicle weight (GVW) above 12 tonnes). But while sales are low, the rate of increase certainly isn’t. Zero-emission sales are up three-fold from 2020, and nine-fold from 2019, despite overall truck sales falling during the pandemic. Most of this growth is attributed to rigid trucks, while little movement has been seen from the most important and high emitting tractor trailer segment. The story for medium trucks (whose GVW lies between 3.5 and 12 tonnes), is a bit more promising, partly thanks to their lower daily mileage relative to their heavier counterparts. Out of the 50,000 sales in 2021, nearly 1,000 (or 2%) were zero-emission. But you’ll find little diversity here; the vast majority of zero-emission models comprised of the Work XL StreetScooter, formerly owned by Deutsche Post DHL in Germany. The real star of the story is the bus sector. Last year, zero-emission buses made up an inspiring 10% of total sales in the EU-27—more than the same share from private cars. This is all the more impressive considering there’s been virtually no regulation forcing manufacturers to invest in zero-emission buses. There have, however, been local demand-side policies driving this increase. The Clean Vehicles Directive came into force in August of last year, and now requires between 12% and 25% of all publicly procured buses to be zero-emission. As a results, zero-emission sales are expected to shoot even higher in 2022. So, the appetite is growing for zero-emission trucks and buses. This is even clearer when you consider the combustion phase-out targets rearing their head around Europe. Six Member States have already signed a Global Memorandum of Understanding, pledging for 30% of sales of trucks and buses to be zero-emission by 2030 and 100% by 2040. Some have gone a step further. The Netherlands pledged to only buy zero-emission buses from 2025. Denmark follows closely behind, with the same target but for city buses. Ireland intends to have a fully zero-emission bus fleet by 2035, as does Austria but by 2040, to be achieved through only purchasing zero-emission buses from 2032. Austria also has the most ambitious phase-out plan for trucks, pledging to only purchase zero-emission versions by 2035. Check out the summary in our map below – you can see the total bus and truck sales shares of each Member State by hovering over it.
Phase-out map sources for trucks and buses

Supply: A growing numbers of models, but not all the right types

Even if there’s a growing appetite for zero-emission heavy-duty vehicles, if what you want isn’t on the menu, then you won’t be ordering.

Today, there’s about 55 variations of zero-emission buses available for sale, and 74 models of trucks, some of which are only in small scale production (we’ve documented each of them in this excel file). The trouble is, not a lot of great options are available for the highest emitters. Tractor trailers make up about 60% of the emissions from trucks, but only 35% of zero-emission models. And most have a maximum range below 400 km, which would only cover about 40% of the daily mileage traveled by a tractor-trailer today. And while there are a lot of zero-emission buses, very few coaches are available—just four by our count. Attempts to fully decarbonize the heavy-duty sector will hit a roadblock in the absence of diversity.

Model availability may not be the only supply-side problem. It’s also vital that manufacturers invest early in adapting their business model to ensure that when orders are placed for zero-emission vehicles, their production capacity can meet consumers’ growing demand.

The technology shift is opening the heavy-duty market to some new players. The truck and bus markets have been historically homogenous; the top seven truck manufacturers are responsible for about 97% of the sales today. However, we found the same big seven to be responsible for just one third of the zero-emission models on the market, with smaller manufacturers starting to gain an early foothold in the zero-emission market.

The chart below summarizes the models we found available for sale. Hover over each point to see some additional info on things like the model’s name, manufacturer, and battery capacity. Circles describe battery electric vehicles, and plus signs represent fuel cell electric vehicles.

While major manufacturers might be bringing less zero-emission models to the market than expected, they have big plans for decarbonization. Most notably, Daimler Truck and Scania (who make up over one third of the truck sales in Europe) plan to sell only zero-emission vehicles from 2040 onward. MAN, Renault Trucks, and Volvo Truck have also committed to increasing their share of zero-emission vehicle, but only limited to 2030 so far. We’ve summarized these commitments in the chart below.

Chart showing manufacturer commitments for zero-emission vehicle production

Trucks: Daimler Truck (2030), Daimler Truck (2039), MAN, Scania (2025/2030), Scania (2040), Volvo Trucks, Renault Trucks (2025), Renault Trucks (2030)
Buses: Daimler Truck, MAN, Scania (2025/2030), Scania (2040), Volvo Trucks

Regulation: The long and binding road

So, demand is low but growing, and supply is gearing up to meet the transition that’s yet to come. But there’s a third side to this story we haven’t talked much about, and that’s regulation.

CO2 standards are in place for most trucks for 2025 and 2030. Manufacturers have already committed to go far beyond what these standards require. The European Commission intends to revise these standards at the end of the year (although it looks like this might be postponed to early 2023 already), and this would be a prime opportunity to revise these targets in line with what manufacturers have already pledged—including a phase out of the internal combustion engine by 2040. The standards should also be extended to buses and medium trucks. Our previous analysis showed that doing so would get us remarkably close to meeting our climate targets.

There are of course countless other chapters to this story that have yet to be written, such as the provision of charging infrastructure to meet this demand, how to decarbonize the hard-to-electrify vehicle segments, and dealing with rising costs of rare earth metals. But setting the right regulation would make for a great start. And any great story needs a very good start.