Many of the transportation efforts to come out of Silicon Valley have been aimed at improving fuel efficiency, eliminating the need for privately-owned vehicles or putting cars on the road that require no fossil fuels at all. The sharing economy—made most famous perhaps by Uber—has been instrumental in allowing people to pool resources for an overall reduction in their personal energy consumption. However, the latest entrants to the sharing economy are raising some eyebrows among energy watchers: A set of startups that will provide on-demand fueling services for drivers of gas-powered vehicles.
Perhaps the most prominent among these on-demand fueling startups is Filld. With designs on a national footprint and more than three million dollars in seed funding, the company promises its customers that they’ll never need to stop for gas again. Users download the app, pin the location where the car is parked and then go about their business. Then, often overnight, a Filld truck will come and fill the car’s tank—which the owner must remember to leave unlocked. Users pay the average price of the five nearest gas stations plus a five-dollar service fee for each fueling. The company is currently piloting its program in the San Francisco area and has plans to expand within the next nine months.
But is making the process of getting gas more convenient a step in the right direction for our energy future? Filld co-founder Scott Hempy thinks it could be.
“There’s going to be a gas market for a long time. That’s not necessarily because of how easy it is to get gas. At the end of the day, that’s dependent on the life cycle of cars,” Hempy tells The Fuse. “We’ve called it ‘on demand fuel delivery’ and not ‘on demand gas delivery.’ This is just as much an infrastructure play as a product play. We’re building out an infrastructure that is more efficient and can span all sorts of fuels. Whether it’s hydrogen, electric—there needs to be a more effective way to deliver fuel in public places.”
“We’re building out an infrastructure that is more efficient and can span all sorts of fuels. Whether it’s hydrogen, electric—there needs to be a more effective way to deliver fuel in public places.”
To that end, Hempy’s team is putting together a study to analyze how far most people have to drive out of their way to reach a gas station. His hope is to find that by having a single vehicle deliver gas to many parked cars, drivers can eliminate additional mileage. But, he’s quick to point out, that the system is not yet operating at that level of efficiency. To best achieve this goal, the company would need to be operating at a much larger scale. Hempy proposes that a strong model for this efficient delivery would be for users to schedule their fueling in advance, neighborhood by neighborhood: On Wednesdays, you get a refill along with your whole block.
Of course, fuel consumption is not always so predictable: One week, a driver might need multiple refuels while on another, she might not need any at all.
However, for urban dwellers, the problem of driving some distance to a gas station is a real one—and it’s only going to get worse. In San Francisco where Filld is based, the booming real estate market has hit the corner gas station hard: By 2017, the city is expected to see a 40-percent decline in the number of urban gas stations with dozens of sites being converted into housing developments. Similar trends abound in New York City and Washington D.C.
“Big urban areas are seeing gas stations leave by the dozens,” Hempy acknowledges. “Corner real estate is worth a lot more with a building there than one story of a gas station… [But] with those gas stations leaving, it’s much harder to get gas in the city. In Paris, for example, you may need to leave the inner city to fuel up. That’s incredibly inefficient with driving the extra miles to make sure your car has something to run on.”
Filld is not alone in its recognition of this need: Its competitors are already hard at work. Miami’s Neighborhood Fuel, Los Angeles’ Purple and Houston’s FuelMe are just a few of the other companies angling to get in on the same market that Filld sees. Each of them is working to address their own local pain points. Boston’s FuelDrop, for example, is looking to target the pain point of fueling up in frigid temperatures, among others. However, because so many of these startups are new and, as yet, unproven, several experts in energy, public policy and energy economics were not yet ready to comment for this article on their role in reducing fuel consumption.
Filld’s Hempy notes several other reasons his company’s service might be valuable to consumers—none of which immediately relate to fuel consumption. He points to the mom or dad in a minivan full of screaming children who might want to just make it home for nap time without another stop. Or the employee whose job is in a dangerous part of town and wants to avoid a stop at the gas station for safety reasons. Or even the elderly driver who would prefer to eliminate the hassle of going to a gas station.
But when asked directly if making gas consumption more convenient—particularly in a climate of low prices at the pump—is really the right step for our energy future, Hempy points to the present reality instead.
“Making [fueling with gas] easier in the meantime won’t necessarily extend the lifecycle of these vehicles in any way. It’ll just give convenience to the gas-powered drivers already on the road… [and] that’s the majority of the population.”