By Martin Leggett
′Just fill’er’up ‘n’ go′ says it all – gas stations currently equate to convenience, when it comes to topping up the nation’s automobiles. But the arrival of the electric car is rewriting that script. With electric vehicles (or EVs) fast turning from fad to trend, a jolt of change is pulsing through the country’s infrastructure. If the Department of Energy are reading the tea-leaves right, 2015 could see a million cars powered by a plug, not a pump.
That’s a market that no business can afford to ignore
Especially for those, like gas station owners, whose revenue stream currently maps directly from the flow of gasoline through the pumps. Of course, as things stand, the direction of travel towards an EV future, could be thought to run right over the gas station industry. Not only is the EV fuel materially different – electric refueling is a very different beast too.
The gas station industry has built a network of refueling stations that relies on the fast refill. That’s not an approach that’s applicable to EVs. Right now, EV recharging times, while improving in leaps and bounds, certainly don’t qualify as ‘fast’ to today’s motorist. Admittedly, Level 2 chargers are now bringing a full-range recharge to a matter of hours; direct DC-chargers can push that to 30 minutes or so. But that’s still not close to hitting the gas pump’s second-to-minutes ‘recharge’ time.
Which is the nub of the problem for those pumping the gas. With electricity is worryingly ubiquitous, all kinds of refueling options open up for EV drivers. The threat to gas station owners is that EV car drivers are going to do their charging where-ever they park up their cars – and skip the gas station altogether. What makes that need for transformation pressing is that the first tranche of EV fans are disproportionately higher-income individuals; the sort whose gasoline spend is bumped higher by longer commutes. So for gas station owners to pick up a slice of that growing EV pie, they’ll need to turn from thinking ‘convenience’ to thinking ‘destination’.
So what strategies are gas stations going to have to adopt to pull in all those Leafs, Volts, and assorted high-status EVs, rolling out over the next few years?
One approach could be to kit themselves out with high-speed e-fueling technology, such variants on the DC fast-charging stations, or battery-swapping technologies. But these are still more bleeding, than leading, edge solutions.
Standards are non-existent, and technical difficulties still not worked through, so implementable solutions aren’t there yet. A more immediately available option is to extend long-employed ‘honey-pot’ strategies, but tuned to the new EV market. Gas stations have been synergized with convenience retailing since their inception – tying in gasoline purchases to the buying of snacks, drinks, heating fuels and grocery essentials.
Such retail goods work with gas stations because they can be picked up quickly, 24-7, so pulling extra customers in, and increasing their spend. Attracting EV custom, though, would be a very different proposition. Gas station owners will need to get creative – pushing the envelope of services offered on-site, so that longer stays make more sense to those looking for a battery recharge.
That could see gas stations offering up services, not just goods; beauty parlors, laptop bars, restaurants or hair salons may fit the charge-time window perfectly. So, for the gas station that has room to expand, the push would be towards a creeping mall-ification. In effect, they will become the ‘destination’ for more of their auto-custom, not just the pass-through point.
Whether such adaptations will work will depend on the specific economic landscape of each gas station. It may make more sense for those serving the mid-commute market than those in denser more competitive urban areas. It also depends on whether the EV revolution proceeds as federal authorities – and President Obama – have envisioned.
Ultimately, the one thing that gas station owners can not afford to do is to pull the shutters up, and pretend the electric tsunami will pass them by. Whether by 2015, or 2020, EVs are coming. And because they are reworking the very kinetic glue of modern society, a once-in-a-generation transformation is building. That serves up opportunity, as well as threat, for all those with vested interests in commercial properties across the United States.
Martin is a freelance writer from the UK, who specializes in writing on the strategic impact of environmental issues. After a 10-year sojourn as an analyst at Brady plc – a Cambridge-based provider of services to commodity investment banking professionals – Martin set himself up as self-employed writer at the beginning of 2010. Since then he has written for a number of environmental websites and companies, and has been one of the principle journalists for green news website, The Earth Times.