The gas station is in for a major overhaul.
The world’s big oil companies have all sorts of potential
changes on the drawing board, including new fuel options,
restaurants and shops, and package-delivery services.
Some are experimenting with mobile apps to speed the refueling
process, or testing services that bypass the gas station
altogether and deliver fuel directly to consumers, or looking
at ways that a shift by consumers to car sharing or autonomous
vehicles could create opportunities for oil companies to
operate car fleets.
It’s all part of oil companies’ efforts to adapt to changing
consumer habits and new technologies that threaten to upend the
business of selling gas. According to a report published last
year by the consulting firm Wood Mackenzie, electric cars are
likely to reduce gasoline demand in the U.S. by 5%—and possibly
by as much as 20%—by 2035. Improved fuel efficiency is expected
to have an even greater impact. Automated vehicles and the
spread of car sharing could also fundamentally change the
market in the long term.
Most large oil companies have been skeptical of the impact
electric cars will have on fuel consumption. But some are
already experimenting with catering to both electric and
gas-fueled vehicles in certain markets, as well as providing
other fuels. They’re also seeing an opportunity to
differentiate themselves by offering services beyond refueling
Over the next 12 to 18 months, Royal Dutch Shell PLC
will run a series of experiments around the world to help
determine the best way to adapt its fuel stations. One area of
focus is on the possibilities for providing access to
alternative fuels like hydrogen, liquefied natural gas and
electric chargers at refueling stations. Shell has opened five
LNG fueling stations for trucks along the U.S. interstate
highway system and four in the Netherlands. It is about to
start offering fast-charging service for electric cars at gas
stations in the U.K. and the Netherlands.
Anticipating waning gas sales, some oil companies are already
experimenting with catering to both electric and gas-fueled
vehicles in certain markets. Shell sponsors annual eco-marathon
competitions, above, to see who can travel furthest on a liter of
Others have similar efforts under way. BP PLC
has 50 sites globally with electric charging. France’s Total
is planning to install 300 charging stations across Europe and
400 hydrogen fueling points throughout Germany by 2023. Over
the next five years it plans to build 350 natural-gas stations
in Europe. In May, it acquired Europe’s third-largest provider
of natural gas for vehicle fuel, adding 100 natural-gas fueling
stations to its portfolio.
Exxon Mobil Corp.,
which has largely reverted to a licensing model for
its network of fuel stations, is looking at developing a new
type of gasoline for the more fuel-efficient cars that are
expected to hit the market in the years ahead because of
tougher regulatory standards around the world. It has engineers
in New Jersey working on a turbocharger fuel that can give
fuel-efficient engines the same acceleration as a gas-guzzling
Though many major oil companies reduced their ownership of
retail stations in recent years, squeezed by weak margins and
tough competition, their refining and gasoline retail divisions
proved their worth when oil prices slumped in 2014, helping to
provide a cushion against the financial drag felt in the
exploration and production businesses.
So, some big oil companies are now opening new stations and
upgrading existing sites, eyeing opportunities in emerging
markets where fuel demand is rising and scrambling to
differentiate themselves in an increasingly competitive
BP is planning to open 200 retail stations in Mexico this year
and has secured a license to open as many as 3,500 in India.
The company is in the midst of a $1.3 billion deal to acquire
supermarket chain Woolworths Ltd.’s
fuels business in Australia. That would add 527 gas stations,
already paired with Woolworths markets, to BP’s business there.
BP has had success elsewhere in joining with well-established
retail brands. In the U.K., for instance, many BP stations have
Marks & Spencer
“Fifteen years ago it was just fuel,” says Alex Jensen, vice
president for BP’s retail arm in Europe. Now, in the U.K., half
of BP’s customers don’t even fill up when they visit a station,
but just come in to buy food, she says.
BP also is experimenting with a mobile payment app to make
stopping for gas quicker and easier. The app allows users to
select a gas station to stop at, which fuel they want and how
much of it they need. The app tells users when a pump is ready
for them, set to their specifications, so all a user has to do
is put the hose in the gas tank. After the car is refueled,
payment is made with a credit or debit card users have entered
into the app.
Shell already allows customers to pay for gas through their
mobile phones and is considering lockers at gas stations where
customers could pick up items they ordered online. It is also
looking to experiment with restaurants, but currently just
offers convenience food like Costa Coffee in the U.K. and
bubble tea in Asia. Others are pursuing similar models and
looking at even bigger changes in the long term.
In Hungary, oil company MOL Group is considering ways to
integrate its retail offering with the development of
autonomous cars and the expansion of ride sharing. MOL’s retail
chief, Peter Ratatics, envisions the company one day running a
fleet of vehicles and providing services around that. In 10 or
15 years’ time, customers could even decide while they’re at
work what they want for dinner and have an MOL car pick them up
with the groceries already loaded in the back, he says.
This spring, Shell will start testing a fuel-delivery service
in the Netherlands. Using an app designed in-house, customers
can request that Shell come refill their cars while they shop,
eat or sleep. The company is even considering adding coffee
delivery to the service.
Pilots for the initiative showed it wasn’t without some
teething problems, not least overly helpful passersby shutting
fuel doors that the consumers had left open for Shell to fill
the tank—but before Shell had actually arrived. But if these
kinks can be worked out, the company will look at options to
provide the service on a wider scale.
“We try to disrupt ourselves,” says Shell’s head of retail,
Istvan Kapitany. “Whatever is good for the consumers should be
good for us.”