Most of us think it’s just a black pump with a rubber hose. You turn it on, fill your tank with diesel, then go inside and pay. The pump itself seems to be just a simple dispenser, like a household tap.
Yet this unloved piece of technology is in fact one of the most sophisticated devices in the fuel chain. Today’s forecourt pump is linked to several different underground fuel tanks and a centralised computer system in the garage building. It has to pump fuel at high speed while faultlessly metering the flow. And now, with garage profit margins so fine, retailers have started to realise that their fuel pumps could do more to increase their profits. First we had small advertisements mounted on top of pumps, then came adverts wrapped around the hose trigger. But that was just the start, as UK drivers should brace themselves for the next wave of diesel pump evolution: built-in TV screens.
These latest ‘multi-media’ pumps are sweeping the US and Australia. Some versions are already being trialed in the UK. Expect more – because garages are reporting huge rises in customer loyalty and, thanks to on-screen adverts, soaring sales in the garage shop. The typical American forecourt now features pumps with built-in high definition screens up to 15-inches wide showing a variety of programmes. In fact there is now a fierce rivalry between the new fuel pump TV stations. The Outcast network for example, “currently reaches 32 million monthly viewers, and is projected to reach 100 million monthly viewers by 2014. Our video network is in 36 states, and we have over 1,800 sites with screens” spokesperson Carmen Cervantes told Diesel Car. That means more than 13,000 forecourt screens show Outcast’s mix of ads and Flixster movie reviews. Across America motorists are bombarded with various fuel pump footage. It ranges from the potentially useful news, weather, traffic reports and public information videos, to potentially infuriating adverts for fast food available in the garage shop. There’s a range of sophistication among this new wave of multi-media pumps: some merely show local maps or loops of static adverts, while the more advanced have touchscreens so customers can respond to an attractive advert or discount offer by selecting to print discount vouchers from the in-pump printer. These can then be exchanged in the shop for free offers or special deals on fast food.
In the US many pumps feature a quick and easy pay on the spot system to save customers walking all the way to the shop to hand over the money. So teasing them inside where the higher profit items are sold is a crucial advantage. In the UK, most pumps involve a link to a console inside the shop so customers are dragged inside anyway – often through a gauntlet of stands of sweets and drinks. Nevertheless industry experts expect the multimedia pumps to spread rapidly across the country in the next few years.
White Post petrol station in Yeovil, Somerset, is trialling a limited version of multimedia pumps. The owner claims: “Filling up is a more enjoyable experience,” although it’s not clear whether he is referring to customer… or himself. “They are more likely to watch the promotions than watch the pounds going up,’ he says.
Coming soon to this forecourt
Other forecourt innovations on the way include diesel pumps with built-in fast-payment credit card systems where no signature or PIN number is required. Experts are predicting that one in 10 service stations across Europe will one day operate without staff.
More sophisticated fuel pumps are also coming soon that will adapt their metering to the temperature. At present retailers can lose thousands of pounds when temperatures drop and their fuel stock contracts by up to 3 per cent.
Google is working on a link with major pump maker Gilbarco to include its mapping service on 3,500 internet linked fuel pumps in the US, giving motorists the ability to scroll through local landmarks, hotels, restaurants, and hospitals. The pump will even print directions.
In the last 100 years, the forecourt fuel pump has evolved from a humble hand-cranked dispenser into a highly accurate computerised delivery system. Early pumps had a glass calibrated measuring vessel on top. This was filled by hand pumping and when the required amount was reached, it poured into the car’s tank by gravity. These globes evolved into illuminated brand symbols while the big glass containers were replaced by a small glass globe with a turbine inside that merely reassured motorists that fuel was really flowing into their tank.
There were once 40,000 fuelling garages in the UK, now it’s around 8,000 and closing down at around 50 a month. So there’s a lot of old pumps out there somewhere. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of nostalgia about old fuel pumps, with some becoming sought-after collectors items. The Vintage Petrol Pump Company in North Yorkshire (www.vintagepetrolpumps.co.uk) collect, restore and sell old pumps, globes and cans. Prices for a complete restored pump start at around £1,200.