What will service stations look like in 2030?

What will service stations look like in 2030?

It's 3 months since the UK confirmed that the sale of petrol and diesel cars would be banned from the year 2030.

Clearly, on the first day of 2030, the UK's petrol and diesel cars aren't going to disappear into the ground. They will be a common sight for some time after.

But equally, many manufacturers are already putting all their resources into electric vehicles, so 2030 would seem to be a good date for us to look forward to.

Since the government's announcement, we've learned that BP is relaunching its vehicle charging points as the irritatingly named "bp pulse". We also learned that Welcome Break's new service area, if built, will have 100 vehicle charging points - a step up from the usual 6 or 12.

It would be nice to look forward to a future where every single parking space came with its own electric vehicle charger, but there would be some big hurdles to overcome first: there would be the time and expense of fitting that much infrastructure, and then there's the practicality of these remote locations having enough electricity to send to the car park.

It seems likely that in 2030, we will still be stuck with the untidy situation where electric vehicles are relegated to their own corner of the car park, probably badly-signed and too small.

How long will large petrol stations be viable for?

That sounds like more of the same. But what about the bigger issues?

Currently, all service areas are legally required to sell petrol and diesel, 24 hours a day.

Clearly, if the number of petrol and diesel cars on the roads is going to keep decreasing, the demand to buy that fuel is going to keep dropping. It's unlikely to disappear - but it could easily reach a point where the sales aren't covering the operating costs.

Now in truth, trucks make a significant contribution to the profit at a motorway forecourt, and they aren't all going electric just yet, but the principle is just the same.

If service areas were forced to keep providing a facility that was uneconomic, it would be a repeat of the situation in the 1970s where the operators expressed their frustration with the industry by doing a terrible job.

Would the government relieve service stations of their contractual obligation to sell fuel to cars? Doing so would free up a lot of space, although it would mean that each service area would be no different to the collection of fast food outlets found on the edge of any business park.

We are already in the slightly odd position where petrol stations have grown so much that they almost offer as much as the main service area next door.

It would make sense to merge the two concepts, but surely the fuel brands wouldn't want to lose their market?

At many sites the main service area and the petrol station are run by two different companies, and if we assume for a second that the future is going to be about charging points and fast food brands, there are some sites where, based on current performance, it's easy to see the petrol station pushing the main building out the picture.

Then there's the issue that new cars are becoming increasingly filled with technology. Motorway service areas will lose their competitive edge if your car will decide for itself which restaurant or charging point you need to visit. They will need to fight back.

How many chargers will we need, and who will repair them?

We are already seeing that every motorway junction - and pretty much every roundabout - is becoming a magnet for badly-built, badly-planned commercial developments, and by being brand new and red-hot with their franchising they would easily beat motorway service areas at their own job.

Perhaps then, it would be better to start from scratch? Here is where I give a long-awaited mention to Gridserve at Braintree.

Gridserve looks like one of the modern, small service area developments, where the petrol station is the facilities building. So it's already saving on space.

But rather than selling fuel, each 'pump' is actually a charging point. So it's a familiar idea, reimagined.

Their recently-opened concept stands out because, regardless of whether you agree with their predictions or not, the founders clearly understand the state-of-play with the electric vehicle industry.

Whereas traditional service areas, like most other retailers, don't know much about electric vehicle charging and have to outsource the job to other companies, who often let them down.

The concept of the motorway service area is not going to go away. British people are always looking to buy tea and coffee wherever they are, even if they are on a motorway.

What's going to be interesting is seeing how they adapt to battle a new generation of ideas, and embrace a new generation of opportunities.

© 2023 Johnathan Randall

Tedious about the author bit

Travel historian, travel reporter, and radio producer. I love the places people pass through along their journey.

I research and write about how our need to get around continues to shape our world through roads, railways, airports and whole new towns.

My thoughts and/or research have been published by the likes of Truck & Driver, BBC local radio, Daily Express, The Guardian, Mail Online and The Independent (detail).

Legally bland

Any similarities with real-life events or wealthy international firms is probably coincidental. No products endorsed. I'm powered by Monster Munch.

© 2023 Johnathan Randall.