The Evolution of the Gas Pump

Every pump station is occupied at the Breaking Point Shell station located on the corner of Willow Road in Northfield at 7:50 a.m.  Chicago’s North Shore commuters are in their routine rush to get to work, school, and appointments on time.  Some decide to wait by the pump while their tanks fill up but those with massive gas-guzzlers hustle back into the driver’s seat.

One GMC silver SUV with a dozen kids athletic team stickers decorating the back window approaches the gas station. Bundled up businessmen and moms in yoga pants hop in and out of their cars clutching their arms close to their bodies for warmth as they fumble with the clumsy gas nozzle. The driver crawls up to the one unoccupied pump; the full service pumping option.

Unaware of which pump she picked, the driver cracks open the car door just as she is intercepted by a Shell employee.  The cashier inside the gas station, who seems rehearsed in informing unaware drivers of which pump they chose, jogs out to the pump.“This is full service. 50 cents a gallon!” he spurts out bluntly. Clearly annoyed, she gets back into her car and circles around to find another pump, where she must wait to perform this inconvenient but necessary chore.

The Shell Breaking Point Gas Station in Northfied. (Photo/ Mary Ellen Shoup)

The Shell Breaking Point Gas Station in Northfield. (Photo/ Mary Ellen Shoup)

The number of full service gas stations has declined after the 1970s energy crisis, which caused oil prices to increase and forced drivers to perform the inconvenient and dirty task themselves.  Like many gas stations the Shell in Northfield does not have the finances to employ extra people for the job.

“It’s a job I used to have my teenage sons do over the summer and sometimes after school,” says Dan Rosenthal, the owner of the station. “But that pump barely gets used. It’s usually for our older customers who struggle physically but are used to that style of filling up for gas.  It’s very old fashioned.”

With gas prices at the highest level in six months, according to Gas Buddy, most drivers rather deal with the cumbersome task of filling their own gas tank, instead of paying up to $10 extra for someone else to do it.

“It just seems like filling up gas should’ve evolved by now,” laughs Hannah O’Donnell, rocking back and forth as she waits for her navy blue Range Rover to reach its full capacity, an errand that costs her almost $90 every week.

This archaic chore may come to an end with recent technological advancements in the robotics field. A Swedish entrepreneur, Sten Corfitsen, has developed a fully automated robotic fueling system that they hope gas stations will adopt.

The technical innovation was developed at Corfitsen’s company, Fuelmatics Systems in St. Louis, and would cost roughly $50,000 per installation.  The prototype is being tested and tweaked, but it would cut pumping time by 30 percent and drivers would never have to leave their cars.

The robotic machine operates along a track and as the driver pulls up to the pump and an adjustable arm opens the vehicle’s door through a suction device while the driver rolls down their window to select a fuel grade on a touch screen.  The process is supposed to be as easy as going through an automated car wash.

Along with its convenience Corfitsen says that the system is more environmentally friendly with zero toxic vapor emitted and gas spilled.  Fuelmatics’ goal is to make self-service refueling obsolete.

Corfitsen says the overall reliability of the robot is over 98 percent and believes the first installations could happen by fall.

In a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, robotic researcher, Matthew Spenko, explains that while the technology has been developed, real-life environmental factors will cause the most issues.

“I wouldn’t put my money on robotic refueling until you have tested it in the polar vortex in Chicago and snow is blowing in front of the machine, “ Spenko said.

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