Jonathan Levy spends a lot of time thinking about the future of the gas station. Or, rather, how the future of car charging may not have much to do with gas stations at all.
Levy is the chief commercial officer at EVgo, one of the biggest electric vehicle charging companies in the U.S. The company and others like it are reimagining how we get around, building out a distributed network of charging infrastructure that isn’t always tied to the gas station model that has ruled America's roads since the early 1900s. "We believe that by integrating charging into everyday life, you make it even easier to go electric," Levy told Protocol.
EVgo has struck deals with Whole Foods, Albertsons and Kroger to ensure charging stations exist in the places “that you are going to go to anyway,” Levy said. Competitors like Flo have teamed up with utilities like ConEd to install chargers on city streets. The growing charging model relies on accessibility rather than speed — EV charging still takes longer than pumping gas — to make things more convenient for drivers.
At the same time, charging companies are also considering how to borrow some of the centralized gas station model’s tricks to ensure a network that works for everyone, everywhere. This rapid technological upheaval is also forcing a reckoning among traditional gas station owners themselves, who will be forced to adapt or disappear.
Gas stations face huge threats from rising gas prices and increasing electric car sales. According to a recent forecast from Boston Consulting Group, up to 68% of new vehicles sold in the U.S. could be battery-electric by 2035. That forecast was made before the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 was introduced, which would extend EV tax credits for new vehicles and introduce ones for used vehicles if passed.
Other policies could further put pressure on gas stations. In Los Angeles, a city as famous for its traffic as it is for its movie stars, politicians have proposed a ban on building new gas stations. That would make it the second city in the country to institute a ban, following a March 2021 ban in Petaluma, a small city 40 miles north of San Francisco.
Policies aimed at expanding EV charging are also tipping the scales. The Biden administration is set to dole out $7.5 billion in funding to states to build out charging infrastructure as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law. The administration has also set a goal for EVs to make up 50% of new vehicle sales by 2030. The funding and rising EV sales could allow for a radical reimagining of transportation. And charging technology may be the most malleable part of that process.
An EV station in the Bronx.Photo: Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu/Protocol
“Unlike the gas station, which has been fixed for essentially 100 years, the charging station emerges even from its earliest days as this kind of flexible, changeable building type,” said Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles’ chief design officer and a professor at USC, where he organizes discussions about what the future of America’s second-most populous city should look like.
In 2020, he organized a public conversation where some of the city’s architects presented new design concepts for the electrified future of the gas station. The proposals included turning gas stations into community meeting spaces, bike pavilions and even urban parks where you can also charge your car.
The conversation is especially important in Los Angeles, which has nearly 600 gas stations that will be impacted by the 2035 deadline set by Gov. Gavin Newsom requiring all new cars and passenger trucks sold in California to be zero-emission vehicles. Allowing more gas stations to sprout up focused primarily on serving internal combustion engine vehicles could set businesses up to fail.
While distributed charging networks in parking lots and on city streets are continuing to grow, some companies are taking their cues from gas stations — and even partnering with them. As it searches for new venues for its charging stations, EVgo announced a partnership with General Motors this month to build a network of 2,000 fast chargers at 500 Pilot and Flying J travel centers across the country. That would make interstate travel in an EV a lot easier than it currently is. Earlier this year, Electrify America revealed plans for its own charging stations that look an awful lot like their gas-selling counterparts. These stations would be located near places like shopping malls — in case drivers want to run errands — and include lounges in case they just want to relax.
The ongoing shift in policy, competition and consumer attitude is forcing groups such as the National Association of Convenience Stores, the members of which sell 80% of America’s gas, to adjust. According to Jeff Leonard, a spokesperson for NACS, that means continuing to expand into, say, food service and other offerings that will keep drivers occupied.
"There aren't many businesses that can survive selling fuel alone,” Leonard said.
But Leonard is hardly in a panic about the rise of EVs. The death knell of the gas station is a long way off. In 2021, Americans used 369 million gallons of gasoline per day. While new car sales are expected to tilt heavily in favor of EVs over the next decade, plenty of legacy gas-powered cars will remain on the road. Research suggests it could take until 2050 for about 60% to 70% of all cars on the roads to be electric — and that is if the Biden administration’s plans are successful. (Again, that analysis precedes the Inflation Reduction Act.)
“It's going to take a while to replace 280 million petroleum-driven vehicles,” Leonard said. “We will get there with the EV future, but it's not going to take years, it's going to take decades.”
There are also important lessons for the EV charging industry to learn from the humble gas station. Although gas stations have had negative environmental impacts on their neighborhoods, in some places — especially communities of color where other retailers are scarce — gas stations are an important part of the societal fabric. There’s ongoing concern that the current high cost of EVs could lead to charging infrastructure being built in wealthier areas.
“Certain gas stations have played an important community role, and we would be unwise to dismiss that role and get rid of gas stations too quickly,” Hawthorne told Protocol. The Biden administration, for its part, has committed to ensuring that 40% of federal climate and energy investments benefit disadvantaged communities.
That’s top of mind for Levy as he ensures that EVgo’s charging stations are deployed in a way that is convenient for drivers, but also equitable. “A lot of communities of color have been in food deserts or [been] redlined,” Levy said, referring to a racist lending practice. “If you just follow those places, then you will accidentally repeat those mistakes as well.”