• May 11, 2010
Be honest: How many times have you driven away from the pump and realized you have no idea whether or not you put the gas cap on because you weren't really thinking about it? Filling up is one of our most mindless activities: Gas cap off, card in, card out, select grade, fill tank, gas cap on, drive off. These days, many of us could do it in our sleep. But as new and improved types of fuel make their way into mainstream society, that careless activity can result in a simple and costly mistake: Putting the wrong kind of fuel in your car. It may seem ridiculous, but it only takes one slip-up to put you in a world of financial hurt. People do damage putting diesel in gasoline cars and vice-versa all the time. In Europe, where diesels and gasoline cars have about a 50/50 split of the market, the problem is commonplace (a study showed roughly $30 million is wasted in the UK alone each year in fuel and repair costs). Even if you realized this mistake and didn't start the car with the wrong fuel – which, if you did, would seriously damage the engine – you would still have to pay to rectify the error. And that's with only a few fuel choices available today.

If other fuels like E85, bio-diesel, natural gas, hydrogen, electricity, etc., start appearing more frequently at the fueling station, how can we ensure that people don't ruin their cars or do other damage by selecting the wrong "pump"?

Different Nozzles for Different Fuels

Today, the issue at the pump is generally a gasoline and diesel mix-up, one that has a simple fix: different sized or shaped nozzles for gasoline and diesel. If the nozzle doesn't fit into your tank, you have the wrong type of fuel in your hand. Problem averted.

This solution is already in place at many pumps, where the diesel nozzles are larger than those for gasoline. But it's only part of the solution; you can still easily pump gasoline into a diesel vehicle (which, by the way, does more damage than the other way around).

Turning the fueling experience into a life-sized game of toddler blocks might not be a bad idea. My idea is to create small protrusions on the end of the pump -- like keys into a lock -- that would allow the nozzles to fit only into tanks specially designed for them.



Settling for the solution of different sized nozzles works for the time being and could certainly prevent some people from ruining their engines with diesel or gasoline, but it seems to be more of a short-term solution considering the implications of adding new types of fuel.

It's safe to assume that as hydrogen and electric cars become more prevalent, present-day gas stations will want to evolve to accommodate these new fueling needs. Doing so would lead to more types of fuels at the same location. This could prove to be a disastrous recipe. Think about it: Do you really want to be filling up your tank with gasoline while the guy next to you is charging his with a high-voltage electric current? We're not scientists, but we're pretty sure gas + rogue spark = disaster.

Smart Fueling Stations

Instead of trusting people to use the correct type of fuel (remember, we don't actually think about what we're doing when filling up), why not implement something to do that for us? Jan Chipcase, a user experience researcher at Frog Design and one of our favorite bloggers, recently tipped us off to a patent he has pending with Nakade Shogo. The fuel cell filling system automatically checks for the fuel required, does its thing, then bills the user automatically.

More examples can be found using microchips in cars and readers on fuel pumps. After all, our cars keep getting smarter, so why shouldn't our fueling stations keep up?

With all of the electronics that go into cars these days, installing a chip specific to the type of fuel your car runs on could be simple, easy and cheap. The chip could then be read by a sensor installed on the pump at a service station, which would in turn allow the flow of the correct type fuel for each car.

Pulling into a fueling station would reveal that you're driving a diesel vehicle, preventing you from an errant swill of E85. You would pay, fill and leave. There would be no room for mistakes (save for the time you pull up in your diesel truck and want to fill a spare can of gasoline for your lawn mower).

In some versions of the perfect future, you wouldn't even have to fill your car yourself. Implementing technology similar to that of the robotic gas station in New Jersey could eliminate spills and the risks that go along with filling next to another, more careless customer. Imagine all the white gloves you'd save.

The question becomes: Do we trust ourselves or our computers to keep things safe at the pump? Knowing how little we pay attention at the pump, we'll defer to the silicon.


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