Forecourt futures?

If only they all looked like this…

A few years ago, I was involved in a big brainstorming session with some senior staff from BP. We had gathered, from both sides of the Atlantic, to consider some of the implications of technology changes on their business, and one of the topics discussed was the future of the retail forecourt: the petrol station, as most of us know it today. There was one thing we were all pretty much agreed on about its future: that it hadn’t got one.

The problem is that electric cars give you a very different refuelling experience from cars burning dinosaur juice. The bad news is that it takes longer, as we all know. Even when I’m charging my Tesla at speeds that would have astonished me when I first started driving EVs, I’m still generally there for 20-30 minutes, rather than the five minutes I would have spent filling up with petrol.

But the good news is that you don’t have to stand there while it’s happening, shivering, breathing in those lovely fumes, and wondering if your shoes will reek of diesel for the rest of the day. Instead, you can be inside the car watching the latest episode of your favourite show, or having a drink at the nearby cafe, or taking the dog for a walk. One of our favourite superchargers is in a multi-storey car park near Bristol, where you can just plug in and stroll over to John Lewis to purchase pillowcases, or whatever takes your fancy.

(As an aside, I think this is very healthy: on long drives, it’s important to take a proper break every so often, not just for your own wellbeing, but for the safety of those you may be approaching at speed later in the journey. EVs almost enforce that.)

Now, you could beef up the shopping/dining experience at some petrol stations, but it’s not really enough. The problem for those who have invested large amounts in forecourt real estate is that these stations are generally the wrong size for charging points — you need bigger parking areas and bigger retail areas — and many of them are not where you’d actually want to spend much time: on noisy town-centre roundabouts or on the edge of a busy bypass. Add to that the fact that they aren’t necessarily in good locations for a high-power connection to the electricity grid, and you’d think it probably makes sense to start selling them off. Oh, except you’ve spent a few decades storing and spilling toxic liquids there, so that’s a bit tricky too.

After the gas has gone…

We discussed other possible uses for the sites, which, despite some problems, do have the merit of being close to good road links, and often close to towns.

One idea was that they might become last-hop delivery hubs. Instead of fuel tankers rolling in during the night to top up the tanks, it would be big Amazon trucks coming to offload their parcels. Then a fleet of smaller electric vans would zip out from there during the day, doing the deliveries.

Someone else pointed out that there’s another service to which people often need quick and easy access while travelling: the loo! Yes, petrol stations are ideally placed for public conveniences, but up to now, that part of any visit has not always been very inspiring! Apparently one gas station chain in the States made their toilets a feature, advertising that they had the nicest bathrooms in the business! I thought this was very smart: there’s not much else to distinguish one station from another, so this was a cunning way to make your visit one of choice (as well as necessity!) Could you, we wondered, actually dispense with the petrol station, and instead draw people to your roadside retail experience through the quality and cleanliness of the adjacent WC? I like that idea, though it might require some clever marketing!

I suggested that they might want to develop a brand and business that wasn’t tied to particular premises in the same way. In the past, petrol stations were expensive and difficult to install, and they added retail experiences onto them to try to increase the profitability of each visit. But in the future, what people would want was not a Costa Coffee shop next to their refuelling point, but a refuelling stop next to their Costa Coffee. And that was much more viable than it ever had been in the past. Who was going to make it really easy for a supermarket, restaurant, shopping mall or pub to turn their existing car park into a charging centre? This, I thought, was an opportunity.

(Interestingly, almost on that exact day, it also became public that BP were buying the Polar/Chargemaster charging network, which was a smart way to get a good foothold in the charging world in the UK.)

Happy memories

Anyway, just to finish this on a personal note, and to show they’re not all bad, I do have a favourite petrol station, of all the ones I’ve visited in my life.

It stood right on the side of a Norwegian fjord, not far from a cottage where I stayed with my parents and grandparents on holiday sometime in the mid-1980s. You filled up your tank in a gentle sea breeze, surrounded by some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen, and then strolled into the shop to pay. This was also the local grocery shop for that side of the fjord. (For the post office, bank, and the other shop, we would just go into to the cottage’s boathouse, get into the dinghy and chug across to the other side of the water.) Anyway, I remember that the two or three fuel pumps had unusually long hoses, because they were also sometimes used to fill up the boats which could pull in just as easily as cars.

And in the spaces between the pumps? Flower boxes.

Yes, that was a really lovely spot to fill up, and it would also make an amazing charging station. Perhaps, knowing Norway, I’ll be able to go back someday in my current car and fill up again…

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Costa Coffee next to a premium WC?

That sounds ripe for a joke about how, in the future, you’ll only rent your coffee for the time it takes to recharge your car.

I have a similar favourite petrol station by Ullswater in the Lake District.

While it might take more time to ‘re-fuel’ your electric vehicle on the forecourt, I suggest that, over, say, a year, you actually spend less time on forecourts, as every morning when you leave home (from where way-past 90% of typical journeys start and end) you do so with a full ‘tank’. I think this means the interval between visits to a forecourt must be much longer than that of a typical user. Unless of course you have an edge case usage model.

I cannot wait for the day I can afford one.

    Jim, you’re quite right, of course.

    I’ve done 14,000 miles in my current car and have visited a ‘forecourt’ less than ten times, I think, though Covid had something to do with that… 😊

    We traded a very old Honda Civic for a Mazda MX30 as a second car. The costs are interesting – the Honda coast about 16p per mile, our Sorento about 26p per mile the Mazda costs 2p. We’ve done 10,500 miles in the Mazda – I expected 9500. So the Mazda costs about £17.50 per month whereas the 10,500 in the Honda/ Sorento cost about £148 per month. The Mazda payment is £340 per month, but once the savings/ current costs are considered, I’m actually only paying £209/ mth for a brand new car. As you look go to transition to an EV, assess the cost more as an overall calculation rather than a straight comparison of monthly payments or purchase cost. We could have spent less via another brand (MG, Vauxhall,) for similar capabilities or indeed with Mazda if my wife hadn’t fallen in love with Mazda Red in the showroom. The only drawback we’ve found for the Mazda is range but for our use case – local driving – it’s perfectly adequate – in part because it’s full every morning. And to your point I haven’t spent a single minute in a filling station with it for the whole year!

In Wellington New Zealand, an old garage on the street in the village of Te Aro has been reinvented as a craft brewery. Called, The Garage Project.
There will be many new uses for the smaller local fuel stations.
Don’t know about the mega stops, but most of them have fuel and large fast food outlets.

I do remember spending a month driving around Norway some years ago, and if you bought a branded (Statoil?) insulated mug, you got infinite free refills at any station of that brand. Needless to say, I tended to just use that brand for the next month – great marketing..

It has occurred to me why eggheads continue to drive like their pants are on fire despite fuel prices going ballistic. The reason being; the sooner that they get to their destination, less fuel is required and therefore they saved money.
Apparently, the vast majority of humanity accept this theorum. Just sayin’
I wonder where we would be if we actually had a pattern of conservation instead of use it or lose it.

Will Driving Under the Influence of alcohol be such a big no-no in future when one can fall into the car and mumble “take me home”?

As a side note to your story, BP took Polar/Chargemaster under their wing as you say. In doing so they took one of the most reliable and effective charging networks and turned it into a mix of new and expensive sites at mainly petrol stations and legacy sites which they let fall into disrepair. Polar used to have a USP of the best customer service team but BP disinvested in it so their customers couldn’t get through when the chargers stopped working.
All this goes to show that running a charging network is not the no effort activity that most traditional gas/petrol retailers thought it was going to be.

As technology inevitably accelerates battery capacity and charging speed, charging stations might well become just as commercially viable as petrol stations have been. Therefore if the cost/convenience of home chargers becomes less attractive as EV sales rocket, heavy duty charging stations will probably just replace petrol stations in like for like numbers, with the added advantage of a far more agreeable environment to encourage compatible buisnesses to share space. I’m not sure this isn’t a non problem easily solved.

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