On-Demand Fuel Services Could Make Gas Stations Go Extinct

RIP, gas stations.

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May 20 2016, 4:00am

Photo courtesy of Filld

The first modern gas station opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on December 1, 1913. It was a Gulf Oil station, where gas attendants refueled cars from pumps around a pagoda-style building. On its first day in business, gas sold for 27 cents per gallon.

As gas stations became ubiquitous, they shaped our roadsides and symbolized mobility. It's where baby boomers like my dad learned basic car maintenance; after the oil crisis of the 1970s, gas stations also connected us to foreign affairs. I work at a gas station in Pittsburgh, not far from that original Gulf Oil station, and I've always loved the way gas stations bring together people from all walks of life. Regardless of race or gender or class, everybody needs to fill up.

But the days of gas stations could be numbered. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, predicted they'd go extinct in the 2014 documentary Pump, due to the rise of electric cars. Over 300,000 people are on a waiting list to buy Tesla's Model 3 and earlier this month, General Motors and Lyft announced they would begin testing self-driving electric taxis within a year. Some experts estimate electric vehicles could become mainstream by 2040. And in the meantime, fuel delivery startups have already begun inching out conventional gas stations.

Companies like Yoshi and Filld—which some have described as "Uber for gas stations"—could obliterate gas stations even before cars stop using gas. Here's how it works: Through an app, customers can summon a driver to fill up their tanks, at any time and almost any place. Yoshi members pay $15 a month for the convenience and receive about 25 cents off per gallon. Non-members pay around 30 cents per gallon above the market rate. Yoshi also sells a mechanism so delivery drivers can open fuel cap flaps.

Filld customers have to leave their gas flaps open each time, and they're charged a delivery fee up to $5 on top of the price of fuel, which is matched with the cheapest nearby gas station.

Photo courtesy of Yoshi

Yoshi has thousands of customers in San Francisco, Nashville, and Atlanta. Filld serves Silicon Valley and San Francisco, but has plans to expand. Similar companies have popped up in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Seattle.

Yoshi and Filld each have a fleet of pickup trucks with 110-gallon tanks in the bed. That's the largest possible size allowed by law before a permit is required, and their equipment is certified by the Department of Transportation. Yoshi co-founder Nick Alexander told me his company is safer than filling up at a gas station, because his drivers use a grounding cable to prevent static electricity build-up (which is uncommon, but can cause refueling fires).

"Whenever you see the horror YouTube videos where something goes wrong, it's because there was a spark," he said. "We eliminate any chance of that."

Related: Hackers Are Targeting Internet-Connected Gas Stations

I understand the appeal. Most of our customers have made it perfectly clear that they don't like gas stations: It's another stop on the way home, it's crowded, other drivers can be pushy and rude, and the stations can be dangerous at night. Gas stations don't have a lot of fuel options either—most stations only offer gasoline; methanol, hydrogen, or compressed natural gas pumps would require renovations so expensive that most gas station owners won't do it without grants.

Yoshi and Filld hope to change that by making alternative fuel sources more accessible. Christopher Aubuchon, the CEO of Filld, told me "our equipment can handle ethanol and methanol right now." And Alexander, from Yoshi, said his company is "less interested in gas than we are for paving the way for hydrogen cars."

Like a future where electric cars are ubiquitous, it might be some time before alternative fuel becomes the norm. Roughly 40 million gas tanks are filled each day, and going to the gas station seems ingrained into our culture, environmental concerns notwithstanding. Unlike Uber and Lyft, which were successful in part because the taxi industry was already vulnerable, the gas station industry earned record profits the last two years.

Jeff Lenard, the Vice President of Strategic Industry Initiatives for the National Association of Convenience Stores, has doubts about the future of fuel delivery. "There's a reason people don't pay for full service at gas stations anymore—it's cost," he told me.

Indeed, gas station attendants exist almost exclusively in states like New Jersey and Oregon, where state laws prevent people from pumping their own gas. Aubuchon hopes Filld drivers will become a 21st Century version of the attendant, by washing windows and checking air pressure in addition to filling up the tank.

But what about all the other conveniences that gas stations offer—the hot coffee, the snacks, the lottery tickets? If the gas station's days are numbered, where will people have the chance to rub shoulders with people from other walks of life?Aubuchon hopes parks will become the next community hub, but that seems too idealistic. And other community spaces—like grocery stores or shopping malls—are slowly being replaced by on-demand delivery services.

Last year, Sheetz—one of the country's biggest gas station chains—opened a fuel-less store with space for 200 people. It sells all the conveniences of a gas station, minus the gas. In the future, Sheetz could start delivering food and alternative fuel through an app too, and eventually, in theory, people could order Sheetz slushies through an app while waiting for their car batteries to charge.

Whatever the future holds, one thing is clear: The gas station where I work, like that very first one in Pittsburgh, will one day be a relic of the past.

Follow Gavin Jenkins on Twitter.

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