Back to the future - how petrol stations will go hybrid
The automotive infrastructure that we certainly take for granted is on the cusp of a big change
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Ok, this might not sound like the sexiest topic ever but I got thinking about it while sitting in the car park of a Norwegian Burger King, watching snow fall around the red glow of a Tesla fast-charging bank.
I’d just driven from London to Norway, which is the sort of nonsense that seems perfectly reasonable if you’re going to spend the following three days up to your mid-thighs in snow covering a rally. Going in my friend Jim’s van, we’d been solidly diesel-powered all the way and it was playing on my mind, as a Formula E journalist, that this was a departure from my normal territory.
But what is my normal territory? Prowling up and down a specially-designed paddock with hyper-advanced charging facilities is hardly the standard motoring experience any more than you could pretend going to a GT race is like a busy Saturday at an M4 service station.
Norway has an unusually high take up of electric vehicles, with 40% of new buys in 2016 all-electric and with the popularity of Tesla, it’s not surprising that their rapid charging was in high demand. And some weird places - fairly determined to strike out on their own, infrastructurally, I saw Tesla points in the car parks of supermarkets and fast food chains but not as part of the petrol stations adjacent to them.
Anyone heavily into motorway service station fandom (and oh yes, we exist) knows that one of the most interesting questions is what came first, the motorway or the services? Accepting Bill Bailey’s explanation that Little Chefs were simple built along ancient ley lines, awaiting their eventual connection to hungry families en route to a dreary seaside B&B holiday, is probably the safest way to avoid getting too far into an infrastructural debate.
But the fact remains, you can change the vehicles on them, but (at least at the moment) no one is suggesting the idea of getting rid of roads. Or driving.
There’s somewhere in the region of 8,455 petrol stations in the UK. That’s a big reduction from a 1960’s peak of 40,000, when the range of vehicles would make any road-ready EV look long-distance now. Even the wildest new vehicle proposals can’t get rid of the need to top-up whatever they run on every now and then and the long haul patterns across Europe made our journey look casual - arriving in Bruges depots were advertising daily heavy good transport to Sweden.
Ever since we – scientists, environmentalists, the automotive industry – first started talking about the potential problems with petrol cars, the discourse has been that we need to stop. From the fuel protests against high taxation that took vehicles off the road, to early environmental efforts, the conclusion has always been we need to give up cars.
That’s partly because when we started talking about this seriously, there was no Nissan Leaf. EV tech was laughably weak for decades and range was enough of a joke that they could only be tech curios, with incredibly lengthy charging requirements, rarely seen outside of an OU documentary.
With targets set for no new combustion cars being sold between the next 5-10 years across Europe, it isn’t going to be an instant switch but non-petrol refuelling is going to overtake the need for liquid combustion fuels in the fairly near future.
That’s a slightly weird thought, from a position where even EV giant Tesla is relegated to Burger King’s car park to charge your multi-hundred-thousand-Euro beast. And it’s not as though that’s a universal charging point - you can’t take your i8 there and try to use the same plug.
There’s a real urgency to changing over to electric vehicles. A report published at the end of February highlighted that 2017 is the first time since the turn of the millennium that the average fuel emissions from a new car has actually risen and London hit its safe air pollution limit for the whole year before the end of January.
But if you wave a magic wand tomorrow and turn every vehicle on the roads into an EV, you’d hit infrastructural collapse. Those few charging points dotted around car parks aren’t going to replace every car on your road’s fuelling needs, so in the race to turn electric - or at least, away from carbon fuels, how can we actually build the infrastructure?
The answer, slightly unlikely though it may seem, is with petrol companies. Having the existing infrastructure, they physically have the buildings and supply lines where people need them to make journeys. It seems unintuitive but oil companies basically have to switch to providing for EVs (and more) at the same speed we all do - and maybe even push it.
I spoke to Jane Lindsey-Green, Shell Retail Future Fuels Manager, about how a petrol supplier is justifying doing what seems the opposite of their interests and she said there was an easy answer, which was that people wanted them to: “The way that we see it is that our customers will shape the offers that we make available on our forecourts. All the while we remain future-gazing, anticipating market demands and evolving to provide innovative convenience.”
“You can see that EVs have moved from 3,000 5 years ago to 135,000 on the UK roads today. So our customers are changing their behaviours and their requirements are changing and we will react to that. Ultimately, they’re our customers and we have to offer them what they want or they won’t be our customers anymore.”
Shell introduced generic rapid charging at some key service stations last year, experimenting with what the market would want. Based around London and the surrounding towns, the principle is fairly sound; although longer-range EVs are emerging, the majority of those on the UK roads currently have pretty short range and are mostly used in cities for relatively short trips, with an overwhelming number of them around London.
So far so tentative but something maybe more interesting that Shell also launched, to some bemusement, is the alternative. Although EVs are by far the most common non-carbon-fuelled vehicles on the roads, there is an alternative that you may have even been a passenger in.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have a tough reputational issue to get over, which is that they sound like something out of Star Trek and/or like they might explode. It’s the sort of phrase you’d hear muttered about ‘oh yes the Soviets experimented with hydrogen fuel cells until the explosion in Vladivostok in 1979’ or something similarly frightening. A ‘fuel cell’ (which is basically just ‘a bag or something you can put fuel in’) sounds like it probably glows and is definitely unstable and high-tech.
In reality, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are things like modern buses and you can have a go in one with nothing more than your Oyster card. They’re long-range, stable and don’t rely on batteries, the least-developed element of EV tech.
It’s also a magical fuel you can make out of water with electrolysis. It’s not as efficient as pure electicity, horsepower-wise but you can load up a honking great tank of it without having to worry. Pininfarina have even built a crash-tested hydrogen-powered GT race car, so although there’s a bit of an inclination to think this sounds like the kind of made-up product you’d get in an advert for skin care (“clears your pores with activated hydrogen cells!”) the easily-refuellable alternative to a petrol engine is actually very much here.
Except it’s not. Jane reassured me my general vague concern about something to do with the Hindenberg wasn’t just me living in the last century but a pretty normal view. “We did some customer research last year and by far and away the majority of people we spoke to just got EVs, the technology was familiar to them. Hydrogen, though - they’d heard of it, didn’t necessarily understand it, don’t know whether it’s now or 30 years in the future and there was a general uncertainty about it.
“When we launched hydrogen refuelling at Cobham last February, on the M25 a customer came up on the forecourt and asked what was going on. I explained and his reaction was ‘where can I buy one?’”
Which is where it gets a bit more complicated because unless you are a squillionaire or able to commission them via a contract, you’ll struggle. And there is only that one refuelling point, so far.
Not that we haven’t been here before, with EVs. So the question of who bites what first is what’s going to be one of the deciding factors in how things look in the near future, according to Shell. “That’s the dilemma, there are very very few hydrogen vehicles available so I don’t think there’s resistance but there’s an awful long way to go and a lot of work to be done, including collaboration between government, the vehicle manufacturers and fuel providers.
“It’s the classic chicken and egg situation - in order to make significant investment, you need a customer base demanding the product but to do that, they need to be able to buy the product and for that to be road-usable as an attractive prospect, you need the infrastructure. It’s a tangle and it’s why we’re collaborating heavily in all our hydrogen ventures because it’s not something one party can do.”
Ok, so, don’t hang up the fuel nozzles just yet. There are some infrastructurally massive things still to do - getting enough electricty to a forecourt to charge multiple electric cars at once is no joke, as Formula E’s colossal logistics contortions well demonstrate (there are a lot of circuits where you can’t get enough supply to power more than one team) and until we can all actually buy hydrogen cars that remains a way off.
But whatever happens, despite the potential disruption of electric vehicle tech - where you could theoretically charge at home and never depend on a service station - the forecourt is here to stay. Ok, until the full potential of rapid charging (and it’s coming, with a graphene battery tantalisingly close) is realised, you might not want to spend an additional hour with a petrol station coffee if you can humanly avoid it. But if you’re on a road trip, you can’t and you’re not likely to be allowed to fuel with high-pressure hydrogen in your own home, err, ever.
So there’s something sort of weirdly reassuring about the idea we’re not losing fuel stations. Aside from being a great place to stop for a wee when you’ve driven halfway across Germany and really can’t wait until Denmark, the extinction of a network that provides motorists with not just fuel but an opportunity to stop and if needed, get support (or at least a coffee) is the kind of eerie, Mad Max vision that gets people all nervous.
It’s a small thing but if you don’t have to sit in a fast food car park to get to the electric future, it does bring it that significant step closer - and unlikely though petrol companies maximising the potential of EVs is, they’ll be the ones to do it.
To listen to leading experts taking part in Shell's 'Disruption Ahead' podcast, click the link below: