“Fueled for Thought” by Joe O’Brien, Source North America Corporation

 

Since a self-driving tractor-trailer successfully completed a 120-mile interstate trip in October, speculation about the mainstream rollout of autonomous vehicles has kicked into high gear.

The truck, introduced by Uber’s self-driving vehicle operation, Otto, hauled 2,000 cases of beer from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Colorado Springs, Colorado, with no problems. A trained driver sat in the truck’s cabin during the beer run as a safety precaution.

Proponents tout the driverless technology’s safety benefits (eliminates crashes caused by human error) and efficiency (minimizes drive times and maximizes fuel economy through optimized driving). For the everyday motorist, the technology could unlock time to pursue recreational or work activities while the car drives itself.

Although the technological innovation suggests the possibility of a somewhat utopian union of operational efficiency, quality of life enhancement and public safety advancement, it is nevertheless poised to change the automotive industry—both consumer-driven and commercial.

Numerous car and tech companies are aggressively pursuing the technology. Ford announced it would mass-produce driverless vehicles by 2021. Tesla has said its autonomous vehicles will be available by 2019. Cities including Boston and Pittsburgh are testing self-driving vehicles.

Just as automakers are ramping up to make the technology ready for mainstream application, regulatory agencies are beginning to assert their authority to define safety standards. In late 2016, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, which is steering the way toward the safe deployment of highly automated vehicles.

All of these signs are evidence that the automotive industry and regulatory agencies are taking the new technology seriously. Members of the fuel industry would be wise to do the same, as the technology could impact the industry’s status quo. With that in mind, the following are some scenarios to consider in which autonomous vehicles may impact the future of the forecourt.

  • Return of Full Service: How far will the automation go? In a scenario where driving becomes 100% driverless (no safety attendant in the vehicle), fueling centers may need to have personnel on-site to fuel the autonomous vehicles. We may see a whole new business model develop where the makers of driverless vehicle technologies contract with retail fuel operations to provide attendants for fueling.
  • Concierge Fueling: Volvo recently partnered with the on-demand fuel delivery company Filld to bring fuel to its customers as part of a pilot program that enables Volvo owners to order such concierge services as refueling, cleaning or to request someone to take their car in for service. As both an extension of automotive autonomy and consumer convenience, increased collaboration between driverless car manufacturers and on-demand fuel companies is a reasonable expectation for the era of autonomous driving.
  • Robo-Fueling: On the other side of the fueling spectrum, autonomous vehicles lend themselves to automated fueling. Supported by radio frequency identification (RFID) or other wireless fuel management technology, driverless vehicles could pull up to a fueling station where robotics-assisted fueling equipment communicates with on-board vehicle systems to complete a fueling transaction.
  • Less Frequent Fueling: Driverless vehicles maximize fuel efficiency for all manner of vehicle types—from cars to heavy-duty trucks. In many instances, autonomous semi-trucks will be able to travel farther than their human-operated counterparts, because current federal DOT regulations limit truck drivers to 11 hours of driving per day. By eliminating driving time limitations, the trucks could, in theory, travel farther distances between stops (depending on load size and numerous other variables).
  • Follow the Leader: Auto companies are also testing the concept of “platooning automobiles” on both passenger cars and commercial vehicles. In this scenario, vehicles share operational data to improve safety and efficiency. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where large freight companies leverage highly coordinated logistics to enhance the efficiency of the overall fleet through platooning. Perhaps convoys of trucks will pull into a station to refuel at the same time.
  • Centralized Fueling: Most motorists today decide when and where they want to fuel. For a passenger in an automobile that is part of a larger fleet of autonomous vehicles, however, the decision of when and where to fuel could be made for them. Rather than stopping at whichever retail fuel station the motorist chooses, the motorist may be directed to centralized commercial fueling hubs, similar to those for bus fleets.
  • Increased Consumption: Autonomous cars will make travel much more accessible and convenient. Driverless vehicles could enable people with disabilities, seniors and others who might currently be challenged by driving limitations to travel much more independently. In addition, the added leisure time that self-driving brings to time-taxed commuters and families may encourage increased travel, and therein, increased fuel consumption.

 

Wheels in Motion

Some industry experts suggest we will begin seeing driverless vehicles become commonplace in the next 10 – 15 years. Others say it may take much longer for the technology to realize widespread adoption as most urban infrastructure—and its innumerable variables—isn’t currently designed for driverless operation. Cyber security (to prevent hacking into vehicle systems), liability issues and safety regulations must also be addressed. And whether or not American consumers will be willing to give up control of their automobiles—even for the possibility of extra personal time and increased safety—remains to be seen.

The good news for fuel marketers is that, regardless of the pace of the shift, driverless vehicles will still need to be refueled—whether by a robot or human, or by alternative or traditional fuel. And as is the case with most automotive innovations, fuel sites that prepare to meet the fueling needs created by driverless technology will be in a better position to capitalize on a potential new revenue stream.

Fuel marketers can put themselves in the driver’s seat by partnering with an experienced and trusted fuel equipment advisor who is dedicated to staying on the forefront of emerging fueling technologies and industry regulations. Should driverless technology require new fuel dispensing systems or controls, fuel equipment suppliers will have information about potential grants and other financial incentives that can help with funding investments.

 

 

source_joeobrien2Joe O’Brien is Vice President of Marketing at Source North America Corporation. He has more than 20 years of experience in the petroleum equipment fueling industry. Contact him at jobrien@sourcena.com.