A man prepares to fill a vehicle with fuel at a Pilot Travel Center gas station in Cornersville, Tennessee, U.S. (Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg)

What the History of Gas Stations Means for Electric Cars

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- On my way to a conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, last week, I took a little detour to Dearborn, to visit the Henry Ford Museum of Innovation. I wanted to see what a Model T’s gas tank looked like.

The importance of the Model T, which the Ford Motor Co. began selling in 1908, is  a familiar story: It was the first car that was both widely affordable and widely available, thanks to the mass manufacturing techniques Henry Ford developed and the economies of scale they made possible.

But there is another, less well-known aspect of the Model T’s history: the role it played in the development of gas stations — and the role gas stations played in the rise of the automobile. With all the ferment surrounding the evolution of electric vehicles, it occurred to me that it might be instructive to look at the interplay between gas stations and cars a century ago.

It turns out that the Model T’s gas tank was under the front seat cushion; to refill it, you had to raise the cushion and pour the gasoline into a hole on the top of the tank. Before you could even get to that stage, though, you first had to go to a store — often the local general store — where you ladled the gasoline into a container of some sort and then, using a funnel, poured it from the container into the gas tank. It was messy, inefficient and ultimately untenable if autos were going to replace the horse and buggy.

By 1912, this system had largely given way to pumps set up on sidewalks by small entrepreneurs, who bought gas from a wholesaler. They used nozzles made to fit the opening of the Model T’s tank, which created an ad hoc standardization, ensuring that all nozzles and all gas tanks were interoperable.

At which point the big boys — the major oil producers like Texaco and Shell and Esso — muscled these small businessmen aside and began the process of establishing national chains of gas stations, building the stand-alone stations we’re now so familiar with.

“They were vertical integrators,” said Matt Anderson, the Ford museum’s curator of transportation. The oil producers understood that the more cars that were on the road, the more oil they could sell —  and the more gas stations a driver could find, the more people would feel comfortable buying that first car. The strategy worked: According to the 2007 book “Fill ’Er Up: The Great American Gas Station,” between 1909 and 1918, the number of cars on American roads increased from 312,000 to 6.2 million.

As I was reading about gas stations in the museum library, I began to compare their evolution with the current state of play for electric vehicle chargers. One difference is that the auto, even in its most primitive early 20th century form, was so vast an improvement over horse and buggies that everybody was desperate to buy one. In the early years, the gas station industry was racing to keep up with the rapidly growing auto industry.

The dynamic of the electric car/recharging industries is almost the opposite. A lot of people like the idea of driving an environmentally friendly vehicle, but in transportation terms, it is not an absolute necessity. Many people — most people — will likely hold back until they are convinced the infrastructure is in place to allow a driver to go anywhere without running out of juice. Thus, if the electric car industry is to succeed the way it hopes, the charging industry has to lead, not follow.

A second issue is standardization. Although Tesla is the best-known electric car on the market, it doesn’t dominate the way the Model T did. Yet the company has, rather foolishly, created a charger that can be used only with Tesla autos. For recharging in your garage, that’s fine. But for a long drive, it’s a problem. Tesla claims that its network of 1,359 charging stations “can get you anywhere you want to go.” But in a country with 115,000 gas stations, that’s not close to being enough.

Chris Nelder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an expert on the EV industry, told me that most of the other companies, like Electrify America, a division of Volkswagen AG, are building stations that are compatible with any electric car aside from Tesla. For now at least, it won’t be easy finding them: Each company has a different app showing its locations, so the owner of an EV has to check five or six apps to find the nearest station.

Nelder thinks that the electric charging industry would be much better off if it followed the example of gas stations. The producer of the gasoline — the oil companies — wound up being the retailer as well. They had a huge incentive and plenty of money to create a national infrastructure.

When the fuel is electricity, the producers are the utility companies. If they were allowed to build retail charging stations — there’s a lot of resistance within the industry — their entry into the market would greatly accelerate the infrastructure needed to “normalize” the electric car.

Anderson, the museum curator, made the point to me that the vast majority of trips do not require any recharging, especially as battery technology improves. That’s true. But it’s also true that car owners want to know that they can drive a long distance if they want to, even if they don’t do it very often. Without that confidence, “range anxiety,” as it’s called, will prevent EVs from becoming a commonplace purchase.

For all their difference, there is one crucial similarity between the rise of gas stations and the coming evolution of EV stations. A century ago, the car industry had to have a national network of gas stations before it could truly thrive. Today, the electric car is in the same position: Without a national network of EV charging stations — stations that any car owner can use, no matter which brand — electric cars will never come close to replacing combustion engines. Something to keep in mind the next time you read a story about the race to electrify the auto industry.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. He has written business columns for Esquire, GQ and the New York Times, and is the former editorial director of Fortune. He is co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA.”

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