Besides getting stuck in traffic, dealing with auto accidents, making loan payments, paying your car insurance, and being forced to compete in demolition derbies by Russian drug lords you owe money to, the most annoying consequence of car ownership is probably having to make trips to the gas station.
Filling up your car is inconvenient, expensive, and sometimes forces you to look at and even interact with other people, which can be quite unpleasant.
But how will gas stations work in the future — when cars may not necessarily run on gasoline?
A few companies have taken a stab at what they think refueling will look like a few years from now, as automakers slowly start to wean themselves off fossil fuels. One of them is Tesla, who this week unveiled their new solar-driven "supercharger" stations.
As we reported, these stations are capable of charging an 85 kW battery pack-equipped Tesla Model S to half capacity in just half an hour. It's longer than the average fill-up for sure, but it's one of the most efficient means of charging electric cars we have seen yet.
The best part? Tesla already has six of them across California, so it's not just some grandiose concept drivers will never get to use.
With Tesla's announcement grabbing headlines, I thought now would be a great time to look at other so-called "gas stations of the future." Some of these are a lot more likely to happen than others, hence the "maybe" in the headline.
Take a look and tell us what you think. How will gas stations work in the future, and which of these represents the best idea?
Photo credit AP.
Fast electric charging stations everywhere
To sum up the main drawback of electric cars in a nutshell: they can take hours to fully charge, and when you run out of juice and there's no places to charge up, you're screwed. So in order to lessen owners' "range anxiety," cities and private businesses have started putting charging stations in parking lots and even in gas stations so your car can charge while you're shopping or working or whatever.
The latest trend is "fast charging stations" similar to the one Tesla just launched. As the Wall Street Journal explains: "The fast-charging technology uses direct-current electricity to charge a vehicle, rather than the slower and weaker alternating current that comes out of a regular charger or an ordinary socket. Fast chargers provide about 50 miles of driving range in 15 minutes, compared with most existing charging stations, which can take an hour or more to provide 15 to 30 miles of driving."
How likely is it?
Charging stations are already here, and you're likely to see many more of them. As the Journal noted, New Jersey power company NRG just signed an agreement with the state of California to add 55 fast charging stations across the Bay Area, and they plan to put 200 across the whole state over the next four years.
Photo credit Getty Images
Robot-driven battery swap stations
As I said before, the problem with electric car batteries is that they take forever to fully charge. With a 240-volt outlet, the Nissan Leaf needs seven hours of charging time in your home. Imagine that out on a road trip. Have you ever been to a gas station you wanted to spend seven hours at? If you do, you're likely a registered sex offender.
So one solution is to swap the near-dead batteries out with new ones. Then the fueling station charges your old batteries and puts them into someone else's car, continuing the circle of life. But who's going to take the batteries out and charge them? Two words: robots, y'all.
In 2009, Silicon Valley startup Better Place unveiled a $500,000 battery swap system in Yokohama, Japan. According to the report in Wired, the station was "little more than a proof of concept prototype" that works like an automated car wash. Robotic trays pull out the old batteries and pop new ones in.
How likely is it?
It seems like kind of a longshot at this point. Better Place is still a startup, and the cost of the switch stations is extremely high. They did open a station in Denmark last year, and said they plan to add 20 more in that country. Best of luck to them — someone has to try and build the infrastructure for electric cars.
Hydrogen fueling stations
There was a tremendous amount of hype surrounding hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the middle of the 2000s, but that excitement has faded a bit in recent years in favor of electric cars.
But many experts say that hydrogen could be making a comeback. Several car companies, including Toyota and General Motors, say they're planning to put a hydrogen vehicle on the market within the next few years.
Hydrogen boasts some advantages over battery-powered cars. They tend to have greater range, and the way they refuel is very similar to gasoline — it's fast, and presumably it would fit with our existing driving habits.
The real problem, experts say, is getting the infrastructure in place. Hydrogen is hard to transport, plus, why add a bunch of hydrogen stations if there aren't really any cars to use them yet? It's the old chicken and egg dilemma.
How likely is it?
This recent article in E&E News sums it up well: "Hydrogen is still more expensive than oil. Fuel cells are still more expensive than internal-combustion engines. There are still fewer hydrogen fueling stations in the entire country than there are ordinary gas stations in a large U.S. city."
But that could change. As Slate reported in May, California has either funded or built 26 hydrogen stations, and GM is teaming up with several other companies and government agencies to add stations in Hawaii. We can't count hydrogen out just yet.
A little bit of everything
In August, startup Propel Fuels opened a pretty unique fueling station in Anaheim, California. As Bloomberg Businessweek reports, it's a station where you can get gasoline, ethanol, biodiesel, find public transportation routes and even tune up your bicycle. It also lets you sign up for a system that tracks your carbon emissions.
Propel's consumer focused idea is being praised as the "Apple Store of the alternative energy market," as one energy journalist told Bloomberg. The CEO of Propel is also considering adding natural gas pumps and electric charging to his stations in the future.
How likely is it?
Very likely, if not by Propel then by other companies. More and more, it's looking like the key to the future of automobile fuel is variety. In the decades to come cars will likely run on gasoline, batteries, fuel cells, or be hybrids of some kind. Offering a lot of variety at filling stations is an excellent way to make sure everyone can be satisfied, and it seems like it could help ease drivers away from fossil fuels more gradually.
Photo credit Propel Fuels