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Will autonomous and electric vehicles kill the petrol station?

Amit Katwala

Pulling up to the pumps and filling your car with fossil fuels will soon become a thing of the past.

Yesterday, France announced its intention to ban the sale of all petrol and diesel cars by 2040, while manufacturer Volvo have pledged to stop making them by 2019.

Autonomous cars might take a little longer to reach the masses, but they won’t be far behind. But what does the driverless, electric revolution mean for the petrol station?

According to Shell’s head of business development Stuart Blyde, who Professional Engineering spoke to at the recent Frost & Sullivan Intelligent Mobility event in London, fuel providers will have to adapt their offering. “I think there’s going to be this different animal of what a station will be in the future and how it serves people,” he says.

“I think there will be a diversification not only around digital and energy, but the products that you’ll serve in the store, whether it’s food, goods or experiences. They’ll need to be far more compelling for people to want to stop and dwell for 15 minutes.” Instead of filling up themselves and then driving off, drivers will have time to kill while their cars are charging.

In the short-term, a lot of infrastructure needs to be built to support a move towards electric vehicles. Currently, there’s a mish-mash of different charging providers and operators, and different brands have different sockets and connections.

There’s no guarantee that the station you pull up to will have a source of electricity that’s in your price plan, with a socket that works with your car. “There is more investment in charging infrastructure needed,” said Lucy Yu, head of innovation at the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, at a recent event. “In more urban areas, people are probably more interested in a faster charge, and less interested in long range.”

Blyde has first-hand experience of that frustration. “I rented a BMW i3 and drove around London, this was 12 months ago,” he remembers. “I stopped when I was being told to stop on the dashboard, at six different places, and at all six places I couldn’t charge up. Either the plug was wrong, the car didn’t work, the infrastructure was switched off and had a sticker on it saying out of use on it. On the road the infrastructure is terrible. At home it’s down to you.”

That’s the other challenge to the petrol station. Industry analysts Frost & Sullivan estimate that 75 % of electric vehicle charging will be done at home, while carbon commentator Chris Goodall puts that figure at 90 %.

He believes that digital strategies will be adopted to make sure cars which are plugged in draw power from the grid at the cheapest times. “It will be 3am, it will not be five o' clock on a December evening,” he told PE.

Understandably, Blyde argues that there’s still a place for the petrol station in the future – particularly for people embarking on journeys longer than the 200-mile maximum range of the best electric vehicles.

Further into the future, there are all kinds of possibilities. Many transport analysts are predicted a world where very few of own our own cars. Instead, if we need to get somewhere, we’ll summon an autonomous vehicle from our smartphone.

These vehicles will be in fleets owned by the likes of Uber or Amazon, and they could be on the move 24 hours a day. “In a world where everything moves to fleet there needs to be these hubs that charge up autonomous vehicles,” says Blyde. “There’s a very clear need for an energy provision to algorithmically manage the infrastructure.”

Shell have been working on technology that allows users to pay for their petrol directly from their connected car (pictured, above), and Blyde says the company will have to develop smart algorithms and technologies to manage charging in future. “If it’s an Uber fleet as an example, they’ll need to know that between 4AM and 5AM is the best time to send this robot off to charge. The robot has no home – it’s driving 24 hours a day so there is no garage that it parks in,” he says.

That could mean an end to pumps and plugs entirely. If there’s no one in the car when it arrives at a station, there needs to be a system of induction chargers to provide energy quickly and safely. “A robot wouldn’t be able to get out and change the plugs and go, ‘hang on, what adapter have I got for this,’ so standardisation around that technology needs to happen,” says Blyde.

It also means a wider role for the likes of Shell, in optimising space and energy by monitoring the charge levels of the cars in a fleet. “When there’s a car that’s five minutes away and this car will be finished charging in four minutes, then that car can go out and another one can come in,” says Blyde. “You don’t want hundreds of charge slots, you want to optimise.”

So in the future. Algorithms will tell electric, autonomous cars when to come in for a top-up, where to park, and when to leave. Petrol stations will run almost automatically. They might not even sell snacks.


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