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Electric Vehicles

An electric car-centric world ponders the future of the gas station

Tim Stevens

The humble gas station has evolved massively over the past 140 years or so, from the earliest days when you had to pull around behind a pharmacy to get a fill-up to the sprawling temples of transportation that festoon our highways today. Modern filling stations, or travel centers as they're increasingly known, are much more than places to fuel your car and yourself. With electric vehicles taking an increasing percentage of the market, you might think the days of the filling station are numbered. Signs are pointing to the opposite being true. Most electric car owners charge at home most of the time, but destination charging is still an important part of the EV experience. And because even the fastest chargers and quickest cars can take upward of 20 to 30 minutes to top up on electrons, that gives EV owners more time to kill — and, crucially, to spend.What's the future of the gas station? Let's take a look at what's coming down the road. 

Bigger is better

If you need proof that the gas station's future is secured, just look at Buc-ee's. The brand started back in 1982, but it took almost 20 years before it started expanding.

This year, Buc-ee's will open its 50th location, and it’s only getting bigger.Bigger, that is, both in terms of number of locations and the sheer size of the things. Until recently, Buc-ee's held the record for the world's largest travel center, at more than 74,000 square feet for its location in Sevierville, Tennessee. But the brand broke its own record earlier this year with a new location in Colorado, then again when it opened its travel center in Luling, Texas. A forthcoming Buc-ee's in Ocala, Florida, will be even bigger. Buc-ee's stations are as known for their amenities as they are for their volume. The brand's restrooms alone have won awards, while the addictively sweet Beaver Nuggets have been raising the blood sugar levels of drivers for years. Upward of 120 gas pumps make the most striking impression upon pulling into one of these places, but increasingly, those pumps are augmented with filling points of another type. Electric chargers are showing up at Buc-ee's in a big way. Tesla made a tentative agreement with the brand in 2021 to install Superchargers in 26 of its travel centers in seven states. It's unclear how many have been deployed since, but one travel center alone in Temple, Texas, offers a whopping 48 chargers, making it one of the biggest Supercharger destinations outside of California.

Mercedes-Benz has even bigger plans. In 2023, Mercedes announced that it was creating a higher-end series of chargers for its customers, and an initial step on that path was to partner with Buc-ee's. The plan is to deploy Benz-branded chargers at "most" Buc-ee's locations nationwide, covering 30 before the end of this year.But that will just be a part of what Eva Greiner, chief technical officer at Mercedes-Benz Mobility, called "a brand promise of a high-quality, good customer experience network." Greiner said that Mercedes decided to get into the charger game because many of its customers were nervous about having a place to charge their EVs, like its Mercedes EQE and EQS lineup of cars and SUVs. "60 percent of the customers said they don't know where to charge," she said. "They're kind of hesitant." 

Another cause for concern was charger availability, but Mercedes is attempting to address that by allowing owners of Mercedes-Benz cars to reserve chargers automatically via their integrated nav systems. By routing to one of the Mercedes-branded charger locations, a reservation will be held automatically, ensuring they can get in and get out as quickly as possible. But still, when it comes to charging, one factor is critical: "Location is most important," Greiner said. "Location, location, location." To that end, deploying in established travel centers gives Mercedes easy access to prime real estate. The decidedly blue-collar Buc-ee's feels like an unusual partnership for a premium brand like Benz. However, compared to the current slate of charging options, that points the way to some big upgrades, and Mercedes isn't the only company raising the bar.

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A new charging experience

Location might be key for charging, but amenities are an increasingly important factor. As any EV owner will tell you, particularly an early adopter who's been driving emissions-free for a fair few years, the modern charging experience is often far from glamorous. Many EV chargers linger in the back corner of an oil-stained, dimly lit section of parking lot asphalt. If you're lucky, there's a grocery store or Walmart nearby, but as often as not, you're stuck sitting in your car idly scanning TikTok with an uncomfortably full bladder. That's changing. Amaiya Khardenavis, analyst of EV charging infrastructure at the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie, likens the early days of charging infrastructure expansion to a "land grab" where every charger company was throwing down plugs wherever they could, with little thought about amenities or anything else. That, though, is changing.

"Amenities are very important at any user location," Khardenavis said. "You can't just leave them stranded for 25 or 30 minutes without having anything around them." Khardenavis said that increasing EV adoption means the companies running the charging networks are finally starting to see a return on investment. In turn, they're making more investments in their networks. "I think that Electrify America's launch of the indoor location, with the lounge, Wi-Fi access and everything of that sort, is a really good first step into the foray of the future of public charging," he said. Khardenavis was referring to Electrify America's new flagship charging location in San Francisco. The site hosts 20 chargers in a different configuration than anything the company has deployed yet in its six-year history of deploying EV charging stations. The indoor, well-lit space features vending machines, bathrooms and even areas where someone can take a meeting or just get out of their car and stretch their legs for a little while.

For EA, it's something of a halo moment. "We really wanted to make it this kind of inspirational project that could highlight the benefits of driving an EV and bring the community of EV drivers together in one large format location," Anthony Lambkin said. He's VP of operations at Electrify America. That one in San Francisco is the first, but there will be more. "We're working on a number right now," Lambkin said, including others in California and New York.

That's entertainment

While EV charging is getting better and faster, EV owners of the future are still going to find themselves spending plenty of time lingering around these travel centers. Thankfully, charging locations are starting to offer not only better conveniences but also more things to do.

Tesla has been playing with the idea of entertainment at its Supercharger locations for years. In 2022, the company added a swimming pool at one of its German chargers. Although the implementation was a bit underwhelming (it was basically a shipping container full of water), the concept at least was good. The company has continued to experiment with destination charging.

While plenty of chargers are close to movie theaters and the like, one of Tesla’s newest will feature not one but two theaters in the building, which is appropriately being built in Hollywood. It's scheduled to open sometime this year. Given the amount that Tesla charges for idle fees if you leave your car sitting in a Supercharger stall when it isn't charging, up to a dollar a minute, you might think that sitting down for a Hollywood epic would be a costly proposition. But plans for this location mentioned featuring shorter films, averaging around 30 minutes. It will also feature a 24-hour restaurant, making it a place you might legitimately want to spend some time — assuming the resulting product is a little more appealing than that shipping crate full of water. Easier Payment Comes with Plusses and Minuses

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Paying for gasoline with cash was never that convenient, but with the stuff approaching $4 per gallon on average in the U.S. right now, forking over that much green is even more awkward. It's a little less painful if you just swipe or tap your credit card, but that still means fumbling through your wallet. If you're filling up in Fargo, North Dakota, in January, you'd probably rather keep your mittens on.

Paying for fuel and plenty of other things is about to get much easier. Visa has partnered with Daimler to develop a new generation of in-car payments called Pay+. The basic idea is to register your card with your car and then use that card to pay for everything from gas to tolls. Eventually, Visa says you could even use it to pay your auto insurance directly if, for some reason, you're averse to online automatic payment plans. Convenience is the leading factor here, but this upcoming technology has a somewhat dark side. While the rise of the software-defined vehicle has made for cars that evolve and grow thanks to over-the-air (OTA) updates, manufacturers are increasingly offering premium features, everything from higher horsepower to hands-free driving.

Having a virtual wallet within your car will make it much easier to tap your way into unlocking whatever premium digital upgrade we used to get for free. This same payment method could also make paying for EV charging easier, but other technologies are helping to address that, too. Plug & Charge is the umbrella term for your car, which automatically handles the handshake and payment when you plug into a charger, storing account and payment information for multiple chargers. And the rising adoption of Tesla's North American Charging Standard, or NACS, will only make the process smoother. While many existing cars will need to use adapters for the next few years, they should be able to plug in and start charging directly without loading smartphone apps or scanning QR codes, things that are even more awkward to do without your mittens when it's 20 below. 

From fossil to E-fuels

And what about gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles? Do they have a place in this future? Absolutely. Even if the most optimistic plans to transition away from internal combustion come to pass, traditional cars powered by combustible fuels will be a significant part of the transportation landscape for decades to come. But the nature of those fuels may change.

We've already seen a major push to blend ethanol into gasoline to boost the renewability of traditional gasoline, but next-generation fuels may come from even more exotic sources. Synthetic fuel, or e-fuel, is a major global research topic and subject to billions in investments. Porsche is one of those investors, putting $75 million into a project called HIF Global. A pilot plant in Chile, which you can read all about here, is capable of outputting 34,000 gallons of e-fuels for use by Porsche's various global marketing and motorsports events. These fuels are literally made of air and water, with a theoretically neutral environmental impact. The output from HIF's Chile facility is nowhere near enough even to dent current or future gasoline demands in the United States. But with another, far larger plant scheduled to begin construction in Texas this year, there's the potential to start offsetting a meaningful amount of fossil fuels. And with enough investment and incentives, these fuels could even replace fossil fuels if we look far enough down the road. So one way or another, even if traditional gasoline's days are numbered, the gas station's future looks brighter than ever.

Photos by Ryan Lugo

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