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/