The End of the Gas Station: How Electric Cars Will Transform the Rest Stop

`I haven’t been to a gas station in 2 years other than to like — buy a coke`

To some extent, “pumping gas” is already an anachronism, a dated expression that describes something we no longer actually do. We get the term from the first gas stations that opened in the US in 1913, where you had to literally pump gas. The process certainly looks a little different today, even for your standard issue, non-futuristic, fossil fuel-emitting cars. As the technology within cars changes, so too will the methods for keeping them re-fueled.

With the exponential rise of electric vehicles (EV), aka the “electric revolution”, the approximately 122,500 gas stations in the US are poised for transformation. Combined with alternative fuels entering the market, gas stations are already under enormous pressure to stay relevant. About 3.2 million electric cars were on the roads in 2018, 751,510 of which drive in the US, according to the Centre for Solar Energy and Hydrogen Research Baden-Württemberg (ZSW). Accounting for the boom of electric car registrations in 2017 — which rose 55 percent that year alone — electric vehicles could hit 125 million by 2030.

In short, the gas station’s days are numbered. But what, exactly, will take its place is a more complex and interesting question, explained Alvin Huang, an electric car owner and founder of Synthesis Design + Architecture. Huang’s firm unveiled one take in 2013, a collaboration on a portable recharging station it developed for Volvo.

electric cars gas station
This take on future gas station uses photovoltaics embedded in a light weight fabric which harvests energy from the sun. 

“I haven’t been to a gas station in 2 years other than to like — buy a coke,” Huang tells Inverse. A proud driver of a Fiat 500e, Huang mostly charges his vehicle at home, which begs a fundamental question of whether the vehicles of the future will need to be re-fueled at regular intervals in the first place.

From Gas Station to Refueling Experience

To be fair, in the context of almost 270 million vehicles registered in the US in 2016, EV has a long way to grow. But they have already begun drawing new lines in urban spaces, explained Wilhelm Müller-Feist, account manager at MDT-tex, an outdoor architecture firm. In the short term, Müller-Feist envisions two shapes that refueling could take.

“There will be ones which are on highways [for] long-distance connections,” Müller-Feist says. “And we’ll have gas stations in the cities which are also used for late shopping.”

MDT-tex solar carport
MDT-tex's Solar Carport harvests not only solar energy, but also water.

To survive, gas stations will probably have to offer more options. Not only may gas stations install charging stations, but also they may provide other types of fuel, like compressed natural gas or hydrogen. And as your car takes care of selecting the appropriate fuel type, maybe a drone will deliver your dry cleaning directly to your car. But Müller-Feist also says that many consumers will be able to skip out gas stations entirely.

“The common American goes to the supermarket every 2-3 days for half an hour,” Müller-Feist says. Electric presents the freedom to bring charging experiences to places where people spend more time, such as workplaces or supermarkets, which is where projects like MDT-tex’s Solar Carport come into play. MDT-tex, who specialize in textile architecture, outfitted their high-tech umbrellas with solar panels to create a sleek charging hub that can also collect water.

Solar umbrella MDT-tex
In the past 5-6 years, MDT-tex has expanded into sustainable energy, marrying textile architecture and sustainable energy. With installations in Switzerland and Germany, the next challenge is scaling up. 

“We need car shelters where you can wait, you can relax, which are convenient, [and] feature other key needs of the customer.” This may change as car charging times continue to fall, but in the meantime, MDT-tex seems determined to make refueling a pleasant experience. Since charging at home will also increase, gas stations will have to create superb experiences to keep coming back.

Escaping the Grid

The classic unresolved issue that keeps us gassing up? Range. Apps like PlugShare help drivers find charging stations nearby, but that doesn’t change the fundamental limitation. Their inability to go long distances is one thing gas stations can take comfort in for the moment.

Or perhaps not, thanks to Huang. Winners of the “Switch to Pure Volvo” competition in 2013, Synthesis Design + Architecture threw together in eight weeks what may be the most elegant and glamorous portable charger ever: the Pure Tension Pavilion. The pavilion, designed to showcase the car, is also an exercise in using flexible photovoltaic panels in a frame that can be assembled in less than an hour and fits in the trunk.

Huang doesn’t see charging stations as unnecessary though. As infrastructure expands the reach of electric cars, it will begin connecting locations that were previously unreachable. But with the pavilion, drivers can also imagine going off grid — or, as Huang puts it, “infrastructure as an accessory.”

Volvo pure tension pavilion solar charging
The Pure Tension Pavilion provides shade to help cool the vehicle as it charges.

“I think the challenge for us was to make sustainability sexy,” says Huang. “The way society has viewed things like sustainability or environmental responsibility, we often look at it like vitamins. We know they’re good for us, but they’re something we have to do and aren’t fun.”

In designing the Pure Tension Pavilion, Huang’s team sought to make a statement, not a concession, in promoting sustainability.

Solutions like the Pure Tension Pavilion are still far from commercially available (especially with a price tag of $80,000), but they reframe the vision of refueling the future.