Author: Hansjörg Honegger | Images: Sunrise, Eni, Unsplash | Date: 03/21/2022

As electric cars, e-bikes, autonomous driving and car sharing change the way we get around, the gas station business model is coming under pressure. It is becoming apparent that the days are numbered for gas stations selling only gasoline and diesel. But that doesn’t mean there is no future for gas stations – quite the opposite. The energy group Eni Suisse S.A. is leading the way.

Mobility in Switzerland is changing. But according to the projections of the Federal Office of Spatial Development, there will be no less traffic. The population of Switzerland is estimated to grow by around 21 percent over the next 30 years. Traffic growth will shift in response, and car traffic will play a proportionally lesser role. Nevertheless, car traffic will increase by around 3 percent in absolute terms.

What will certainly change are the fuels we use over the course of the energy transition. The demand for gas and diesel will decrease, while electricity and hydrogen will become much more common. The figures from transportation researchers show that we will still need filling stations in the future and that they will continue to massively expand existing additional services.

Disruptions to the gas station model

In recent years, disruption has taken the following form: New providers emerge and replace traditional services within a short space of time. This works particularly well with location-independent services, such as Netflix or booking platforms. Gas station service providers have a crucial advantage because their properties are conveniently located for traffic, and this will remain an important factor over the next 30 years, as estimates show.

The challenges that gas station owners are already facing today are things like, What will be in demand at busy points of sale in the future? How much time will people spend at these locations? A look at the past 20 years provides insight into what is likely to change, Gas station shops are already in high demand today, and thanks to long business hours, the sale of everyday goods has become an economically viable business. This development will become even more significant, especially with regard to the digitalization of products.

The longer stay at service stations required for electric vehicles means that the gas station infrastructure needs to make the wait more enjoyable. Shops will move away from pure practicality and become worlds of experience, as is already the case at some highway rest stops. Entertainment will play a bigger role, and the focus will be on the customer’s comfort.

Location-based services

However, these developments will not be uniform. They will likely depend heavily on the gas station’s location. Inner-city gas stations have little space but are very well-situated in terms of traffic. Here, the focus will primarily be on refilling or charging. Just like today, the shops will offer products for daily needs. That said, the gas station certainly has the potential to become a neighborhood hub by adding a cozy café. Due to the accessible infrastructure, it would be conceivable to pick up packages from automated postboxes, which some post offices and retailers are already offering.

There is often more space on the outskirts of cities, which offers other possibilities for expansion and additional services. Transportation researchers predict that people will switch more frequently between modes of transport at the entrances to the cities than they do today. It would be conceivable to switch from a car to an e-bike, or to carpool into the city from these points. In the longer term, it might be possible to switch to autonomous vehicles that are ordered via app. A perfect opportunity for gas stations with a bit more space – they could offer free parking spaces as a service model.

On highways, the model will be optimized for travelers rather than commuters. Experience-based dining, entertainment and retail landscapes will make long charging breaks pleasant and family-friendly.

Gas station operators will have to adapt

Gas station owners are aware of the disruptive force of these upcoming changes. Efforts are being made to establish the appropriate infrastructure for the next steps. «Eni is already relying on digital automation», says Cristian Fresi, Head of ICT at Eni Suisse S.A., based in Lausanne.

Cristian Fresi, Head of ICT, has a clear vision and is
working toward digital transformation at Eni Suisse S.A.

A powerful and secure network and data infrastructure are central to almost all of these upcoming changes. With the introduction of an SD-WAN solution from Sunrise based on Cisco Viptela, the energy company is already preparing for the future. Customers expect a high level of comfort in the future, which can be aided greatly by digitalization: automated billing when refilling and charging, individualized customer interactions when shopping, modern entertainment options such as streaming in a cozy lounge – and all that with easy access to one’s own account, of course. Not to mention electric charging stations and easily rentable e-bikes for commuting the rest of the way, or the option of ordering a freshly serviced autonomous vehicle in the future. The possibilities are endless.

Infographic: The intelligently networked gas station enables numerous data-based applications. This creates added value for the owner and for consumers.

Much of this is still a long way off, a fact that Fresi is well aware of. But progress can’t be stopped: «We are currently developing an app that will allow us to communicate even better and more directly with our customers.» In the medium and long term, the aim is for the stations to generate some of the energy themselves. The roofs of tomorrow’s gas stations would be ideally suited for producing solar electricity.

But not only the interfaces with customers are being affected by digitalization. Internal processes are just as important: Adaptive billing and pricing models, predictive maintenance thanks to IoT-based remote monitoring of fuel and washing systems, automated product management, electric charging stations and much more offer huge possibilities for optimization. IT and data security are present throughout all of this, as it involves critical infrastructure and sensitive customer data. Here too, Eni Suisse S.A. relies on a professional solution from a single source, alongside Sunrise. The possibilities for tomorrow’s smart gas station remain wide open in all directions.

SD-WAN in simple terms

An SD-WAN (Software-defined Wide Area Network) is a virtual WAN architecture that combines any number of paths for data transmission in order to securely connect users to applications. SD-WAN simplifies the management of secure and agile corporate networks. With cloud-based network technology, data traffic between multiple locations can be configured dynamically and based on need. The required network capacity is allocated to each application via a central control unit. This not only accelerates processes for cloud applications, but also makes it possible to prioritize network traffic for business-critical applications. The platform satisfies internal needs in a highly reliable manner but at the same time offers powerful Wi-Fi for customers that works independently of the internal Wi-Fi network. In addition, SD-WAN transmits all data in encrypted form and significantly improves security against cyberattacks, for example with mobile payments, personal customer data or remote access to critical infrastructure when maintenance is being done. Within a few minutes, new network services can be activated centrally for the entire branch network or access rights can be assigned individually. This reduces the administrative effort for IT.

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