How will electric vehicles change the forecourt?

05 : 02 : 2018 Automotive : Retail : Food And Drink
Charging stations by COBE, Denmark Charging stations by COBE, Denmark

Most new pure EVs can use rapid charging points that top up the batteries to 80% capacity in around 30 minutes...this will necessitate the expansion and redefinition of the offer fuel station operators provide.

Peter Maxwell, senior journalist, LS:N Global

A future dominated by electric vehicles (EVs) is going to mandate some significant changes to global transport infrastructure, not least the creation of dedicated charging facilities. That transition remains slow but is growing in strength. Morgan Stanley predicts that by 2025 EV sales will hit 7m a year and make up 7% of vehicles on the road. With several countries having confirmed dates at which they will outlaw the sale of petrol and diesel engines in the last 12 months – 2040 for the UK and France and 2030 for India – this is likely to now accelerate further.

What does this mean for the future of the forecourt, a space that has traditionally been a significant sales channel for a broad range of FMCG brands? And what new opportunities might this changed landscape present for sectors that haven’t previously been able to take advantage of the brief moment consumers spend refuelling?

Indeed, the lengthening of that moment is they key shift here. Most new pure EVs can use rapid charging points that top up the batteries to 80% capacity in around 30 minutes, a far more significant dwell time than required to fill a petrol tank. This will necessitate the expansion and redefinition of the offer fuel station operators provide, impacting everything from the architecture up.

Danish firm COBE recently set out one vision of what these spaces might look like. Dominated by a wooden, arboreally-inspired canopy topped by solar panels and interspaced with vegetation, COBE’s design shares only passing resemblance to your local Esso or BP. For COBE's founder Dan Stubbergaard, this was driven by a desire to allow drivers to use their wait time more meaningfully, hence his firm borrowing many of the tropes of wellness architecture for their solution. ‘We want to offer drivers a much-needed and meaningful break in a green oasis,’ says Stubbergaard. ‘The energy and the technology are green, and we want the architecture, the materials and the concept to be green as well.’ Forty of COBE’s station will be built across Scandinavia in the next few years.

Pragmatists will argue that these spaces will essentially be micro-size motorway service stations, but those with ambition will understand that the opportunity is much greater.

However, the idealism of COBE’s wellbeing-focused proposal is liable to remain a niche approach. Any captive audience is ripe for commercial exploitation, and that consumer dead time is far more likely to be used to encourage drivers to spend on additional goods and services. When it comes to the petrol station as retail space, it’s easy to overlook quite how sizeable a market these touchpoints represent. To put this in perspective, take a market leader like Shell. The brand has 43,000 service stations, serving 25m customers across 70 countries every day. That translates to $6bn worth of convenience retail transactions every year. With consumers detained for much longer, the next step is to understand how the forecourt can diversify its offer beyond convenience towards more revenue intensive models.

EV giant Tesla, which has plans to expand its network of 145KW ‘supercharger’ stations to 10,000 in the coming years, is unsurprisingly leading the way on this front. Speaking at last year’s food tech conference FSTEC, Tesla CTO JB Straubel commented that EV drivers ‘want to eat, they want to have a cup of coffee, they want to use the bathroom’ while waiting for their batteries to replenish. Straubel showed plans of what these rest stops might look like – admittedly still appearing similar to your average convenience store – but also revealed that the automaker was already in discussion with restaurant brands about running food outlets at their sites.

Pragmatists will argue that these spaces will essentially be micro-size motorway service stations, but those with ambition will understand that the opportunity is much greater, with charging stations potentially becoming a focal point for retail and leisure activities in communities across markets with significant EV uptake. Indeed, this January CEO Elon Musk followed up his CTO's revelation with a tweet that expanded Tesla's vision to include ‘an old school drive-in, roller skates & rock restaurant at one of the new Tesla Supercharger locations in LA…and an outdoor screen that plays a highlight reel of the best scenes in movie history.’ Whatever the future of roadside consumption looks like, it seems that it will be significant step forward from the duopoly of the Big Gulp and the microwave burrito.

For more on the future of mobility, read our dedicated Far Futures vertical.