The Future of Filling Up

August 2018

Q: What do floppy disks, typewriters, pagers and petrol pumps have in common?

A: They were all useful devices and services which were eventually rendered obsolete in the modern era.

Admittedly, petrol pumps are still very relevant to our present-day lifestyles, but parking up at the pumps and filling your car with fossil fuels could soon become a thing of the past. In our previous two-part blog on electric cars, we’ve discussed the probability that they will eventually dominate the automobile market. With the revelation that Volvo has pledged to stop making cars as we know them by 2019, and that France has announced a ban on petrol and diesel cars by 2040, what does this mean for the future of filling up?

In the UK, the number of petrol stations has fallen by 80% since 1970, despite the combined usage of petrol and diesel rising by 75%1. It’s estimated that there will be more electric car charging stations than petrol stations by as early as 2020.

As it stands, most of us pull up next to the pump, fill up, pay and leave. Filling up our cars currently takes typically less than 10 minutes, however, charging a car takes considerably longer. With that, comes the need — or opportunity — to compel consumers to buy a product or service as they wait for their car to charge. In light of this, big oil companies that own petrol stations, such as Royal Dutch Shell and BP, have already committed to installing electric vehicle charging points at their retail sites.
The Challenges
As ever, there are going to be challenges in the implementation of a new service, especially on such a monumental scale. There will have to be infrastructure in place which will have the capability and capacity to charge electric cars by the hundreds of thousands and eventually, millions.

Consumers will also have to adjust; at the moment, it can’t be guaranteed that the charging station you pull up to will have pricing that is within your budget, or have a socket that is the right fit for your car. Consequently, it could take several attempts to find a station which meets your requirements. Industry analysts, Frost & Sullivan, estimate that 75% of electric vehicle charging will take place on the driveway at home, while carbon commentator Chris Goodall puts that figure at 90%2. It’s important to note that half of households in the UK don’t have off-road parking, suggesting that there will be a need for public charging stations. Somewhat surprisingly, 98% of UK motorway services currently have charging stations3, suggesting that necessary infrastructure is slowly starting to put down roots.

However, other infrastructure challenges will still have to be tackled. An increase in electric car ownership will increase demand for electricity, as drivers charges their cars when they return home, creating peak and troughs in demand. Grid capacity is sized around demand diversity, rather than scaled to accommodate synchronised maximum demand. Just like how the National Grid finds a way to cope with surges during TV ad breaks as the nation makes a cuppa, it will have to have to find ways to encourage changes in behaviour to prevent overloading the power system, perhaps through off-peak tariffs.

One of the main shortcomings of electric cars at the moment, is the comparatively short distance they can travel before needing a recharge, in conjunction with a fairly lengthy charge time. Clearly, there needs to be investment in the continued development of battery technology. There are already several companies exploring ‘flash battery’ technology, which could allow an electric vehicle to run for a long distance just from a five-minute charge. If this is successful, the rapid charge could enable the introduction of more forecourt-style charging sites, as charging electric vehicles becomes easier and more accessible.

There are still several unanswered questions and challenges surrounding electric vehicles, especially how we will have the capacity and infrastructure to charging a high volume of cars in any given day. However, we do know the answer to one question; “Are electric vehicles here to stay?” Most definitely.

If you’d like to read about EVs in more detail, we’ve published a Part 1  & Part 2 on the evolution of the electric car.