There are currently about 14,000 gas stations in Germany. But for how long will they be around? Electric vehicles and new forms of mobility are changing the classical business model with its familiar pumps. The oil corporations want to make a switch. How will we fill up in the future?
Fill the tank, stretch your legs, quickly visit the restroom, have a smoke, grumble about the high prices at the rest area, pay the bill, and continue your journey. This is all very familiar, something that motorists repeat thousands of times. But how will gas stations evolve in times of changing mobility? And even if it’s going to take decades, in the passenger car segment the internal combustion engine will be joined by other types of propulsion. This will also change the need for classical filling stations selling diesel and gasoline. Petroleum corporations such as Shell and Aral are reacting to the approaching shift to new forms of mobility by setting up charging stations. More ultra-fast charging points for travelers in a hurry are to be installed, especially along the highways. But that’s not all. Many filling stations have already begun serving battery electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles. Designs for future filling stations also see them as “green” service worlds and modern mobility hubs.
The Eidgenössische Materialprüfungs- und Forschungsanstalt (EMPA) forecast that in the future, filling stations with excess energy from roof-top photovoltaic systems will produce fuels locally themselves. These CO2-neutral fuels will then be particularly suitable for use by long-distance drivers and for freight transport. Synthetic diesel and gasoline fuels could be produced alongside electricity and hydrogen for e-cars. According to a joint study by Aral and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), filling stations will become traffic nodes and places serving various forms of mobility. For example, future filling stations might offer not only fast charging for e-cars, but also a battery-changing service for scooters and e-bikes.
Another future component will be the function as a service point for autonomous vehicle fleets. Alongside the supply of energy, in whatever form, it would be conceivable to offer services such as vehicle-cleaning or minor repairs, for example. In addition, filling stations should become nodes where many different forms of mobility meet. The Aral study envisages landing sites for electric micro-aircraft such as passenger drones. Passengers could change directly on the filling station premises from airborne taxis to autonomous robotaxis or rented electric scooters. The filling stations of the future could also assume a larger role as logistics centers. Today there are already parcel points at some Aral gas stations in Germany.
Of course, filling stations will remain active in some of their classical business areas. Presumably their function as 24/7 supermarkets will continue to be a major part of their business, in some modernized form for sure. In China, snacks and drinks can be ordered from the car and purchased using digital payment systems. Expansion of gastronomic options would make filling stations more attractive as centers of consumption. And typical services such as the carwash also have a future. If in the future filling stations sold mostly renewable energy, that would also improve the climate footprint of the vehicle wash. The PM filling station in the German town of Geilenkirchen has implemented an interesting model. It not only generates solar electricity but also collects rainwater to use as service water, which means that it does not use drinking water any more for its carwash. So filling stations becoming greener is not only a vision but in some places already reality.
There is no limit to ideas for the filling stations of the future. In a competition in the run-up to the Geneva Motor Show 2019, Marco Brunori presented the “mixed operation” concept. His idea comprises a flexible architecture for a multi-story mobility hotspot with separate areas for filling up. There is a drop-off and pick-up zone. The size of the different areas can be adjusted depending on how well the various powertrains are established. A central court forms a calm zone surrounded by various service areas such as a yoga studio, a gym and a café, which are rented out for a year or two to serve the customers’ various needs.
The design created by Simon Frei, Michael Frei and Dominic Nyffeier is very eccentric. Customers can order the “Speedbump” using a smartphone, but they don’t even have to get out of their car to do so. An autonomous refueling vehicle localizes the customer’s vehicle and rendezvous with it at an agreed time in order to carry out automatic refueling. The driver selects the fuel in advance and uses digital payment. The service vehicle returns to its depot to fill up its own 1,500-liter tank. Speedbump operates without getting in the way of other road users, because another car can simply overtake by driving over the service vehicle’s side ramp. With all these ideas, the filling station of the future cannot arrive fast enough!