What do you get when you cross a lazy driver, an industrial robot and a Dalek from "Doctor Who?" The latest addition to our phalanx of robot overlords, that's what! But this robot is a one-trick pony, which keeps it from developing the intelligence required to annihilate every species in the universe, which is what the Daleks are born to do. At least, we hope that's the case.
To get to the point already, this robot does one thing only: It fills your fuel tank faster and better than you ever could, puny human. "People feel that refueling is a boring necessity," said Sten Corfitsen of Fuelmatics, one of the companies working on this robotic refueling technology. In a world where kids these days are bored to tears by even driving, thanks to the availability of information and entertainment on their mobile devices, stopping to put gas in the stupid tank is yet another annoying break in an otherwise seamless day of data parsing. Why not let a Dalek put flammable fuel in your driverless car? What could go wrong?
How the Robots Refuel Your Car
There are actually a couple of companies in Europe working with robotic gas pumps, and their systems work pretty much the same way.
First, you have to choose which pump to use, depending on which side your gas cap is on. Can't remember? No one can, apparently. Fuelmatics will give you a little sticker for the dashboard to help you out with that. Next, you have to prepay, just like most of us do now anyway. Fuelmatics uses either a screen at the pump, much like a drive-up ATM, or an app on your phone. Rotec Engineering's pumps in the Netherlands use an RFID sticker in the windshield that's tied to your account, so you have to preregister before filling up. While your information is being verified, the robot waits patiently near the fuel door.
Once the robots have determined that you're worth their time, the machine goes to work. A Dalek-like arm with a little suction cup on the end pops open the fuel door. The Rotec machines are a bit older, so another Dalek-like arm with a little claw spins the gas cap off. The Fuelmatics system takes advantage of the capless "flapper-like solution," as Corfitsen called it, that some auto manufacturers are using now. If your tank still has a cap, Fuelmatics will also give you a "speed fuel cap" that works with their machines. So generous.
Now it's time for the gas to get in the tank. In the Fuelmatics system, two cameras locate the exact location of the fuel pipe. "In an early generation, we used a microwave transponder," said Corfitsen. "It was too difficult for the motorist to get the transponder in the right position." No kidding. We can't even back the car up without a camera and colored guidelines on a screen anymore. In any case, once the machine finds the fuel pipe, it puts a spout in and starts filling the tank, just like a human would, but with less mess, and without smoking a cigarette at the same time.
When the sensors in the spout detect that the tank is full (or the app on your phone tells the system to stop), the spout withdraws and lets you know you're allowed to go now. The Dalek has spared your life ... this time.
Do we really need robots to do something so simple?
"Need" is such a touchy word. Do we "need" a new iPhone? Do we "need" an adorable sweater for the dog? Do we "need" a new hybrid crossover vehicle to replace our perfectly serviceable older model all-wheel drive vehicle? No, we do not need these things. But an iPhone, a dog in a sweater and a new hybrid crossover would make our lives much more enjoyable, and so it is with robot refueling.
First comes the convenience for the consumer, which is really all you probably care about anyway. With a robot refilling the tank, you don't have to get out of your car in a Polar Vortex. In fact, if you've got an app to pay for your purchase, you don't even have to roll down the window. It's also faster to let the robot do it; it can start the process while it waits for your card to be verified. Corfitsen said Fuelmatics machines start pumping gas into the tank 12 seconds after the credit card is verified. It can even be cleaner; the robots are less likely to be distracted by that guy/girl/dog in an adorable sweater in the car across the way and spill gasoline all over the fender panel. Not to mention the big benefit: It would be way easier for physically disabled drivers to refuel.
You may be wondering if this machine will work with your car. It will. Fuelmatics had to find technology and mechanical components that would work with all car models, no matter their shape, size, or gas cap height. The cameras guiding the computer solved a lot of those problems, but "it required hundreds of well-judged compromises to find a system that would work with all cars," Corfitsen said.
There are also conveniences for the gas station operator. There can be three nozzles in one machine, one for gasoline, one for diesel and one for an alternative fuel like natural gas. All the consumer has to do is pick the right one, and each nozzle would be shaped a little differently to minimize mistakes. And if you're building a new gas station, you don't need to build expensive covered islands, since no one is getting out of the car to stand in the rain and pump gas. The robots don't care. It also cuts fueling time, so lines will be shorter because more cars can be serviced more quickly. Fuelmatics intends its robots to be a marketing tool. Corfitsen added, "The intention is that the early user of this will gain more customers by providing a nice refueling experience." And if you're a gas station owner, you know what more customers means. Cha-ching!
Why You Don't Already Have Robots Pumping Your Gas
There are a few downsides, most of which have to do with installation costs. The Rotec Engineering pumps are the pioneers in this corner of the robot world, and when they were installed in the Netherlands in the dark ages of 2009, they cost more than $110,000. The Fuelmatics system that was making the rounds of nerd news in early 2014 will start at $50,000 to $60,000 per pump, Corfitsen said, though he predicted the price would drop as more pumps are installed. The Fuelmatics robots will be ready for regulatory testing in late 2014; after that, it's a robot refilling free for all.
Also, in the states of Oregon and New Jersey, it's illegal to pump your own gas. There are no self-serve stations in these states; attendants still come out, take your payment, pump the gas and then wish you a nice day as you drive away. This seems pretty great, but Corfitsen says Fuelmatics has "a particular interest" in those two states, since motorists are already accustomed to staying in their cars while they fill up. Corfitsen answers the charge that the robots will take away human jobs by pointing out that the robots were developed in conjunction with Husky Corporation in Pacific, Mo., where the pumps will be manufactured. He also noted that installation and maintenance technicians will be needed.
In a world where people fall in love with their phone's operating system and driverless cars are terrorizing the San Francisco Bay Area, robot gas station attendants really aren't all that scary -- even if they do borrow a few parts from Daleks. People were probably more freaked out by the first automatic car washes than they will be by a robot arm filling their fuel tank in a snow storm.
Author's Note: How Robotic Gas Pumps Work
I live in the great state of Oregon, and Corfitsen is right -- I'm fine with having anyone else, person or robot, pump my gas for me. A quick drive over the border into the state of Washington induces a mild panic. I usually plan ahead to fill my tank before driving out of state. I am not even kidding.
But people in other states profess to like the excuse to climb out of the car to stretch their legs and get some fresh air. (Some of those people live in sweltering states, and I can't believe they want to get out of the air conditioned car to stand around and sweat for five minutes.) Some people don't trust robots to do anything right. Some people insist on doing everything their own way. I think they'll have lots of time to adjust to the idea of a robot popping the fuel door open and filling up the tank.
But I'll miss my regular gas guy, the one with the crazy curly hair squished by a trucker cap -- the one who works the late shift and blasts 80s metal that can be heard from pump 1 to pump 8. I don't think a robot will wear a trucker cap.
- Corfitsen, Sten. Personal interview conducted on Feb. 19, 2014.
- Fuelmatics. (Feb. 12, 2014) http://fuelmatics.com/
- Husky Corporation. (Feb. 12, 2014) http://www.husky.com/news/
- Main, Douglas. "Robotic Gas Pumps Are Coming Soon." Popular Science. Jan. 24, 2014. (Feb. 12, 2014) http://www.popsci.com/article/cars/robotic-gas-pumps-are-coming-soon
- Saenz, Aaron. "Dutch Gas Station Has Robot Pumping Gasoline." Singularity Hub. Sept. 16, 2009. (Feb. 12, 2014) http://singularityhub.com/2009/09/16/dutch-gas-station-has-robot-pumping-gasoline-video/
- Van Allen, Fox. "Back to the Future 2's Robotic Gas Station Arrives a Year Early." Techlicious.com. Jan. 25, 2014. (Feb. 14, 2014) http://www.techlicious.com/blog/back-to-the-future-2s-robotic-gas-station-arrives-a-year-early/