Nicola Buck is not shy about describing the difficulties of paying at the pump in the year 2020. 

“The experience at the pump is really poor,” says Buck, head of marketing for BP, London. “You have to get out, you have to put your details in, and you have to remember your ZIP code and potentially a [PIN] as well. And then putting in your credit card details—people are worried about fraud.”

A few of Buck’s many responsibilities with BP include overseeing loyalty, payment and marketing technology. Her vision of the future forecourt involves smoothing over the “pain points.” As cars become more fuel-efficient and people drive less, the onus to improve the experience of pumping gas is more important than ever.  

“The long-term vision is that somebody can drive in, get out, fill up and just drive off,” says Buck. Her vision recalls Amazon’s “just walk out” frictionless checkout technology found in Amazon Go stores. 

Gray Taylor, executive director of tech standards group Conexxus, Alexandria, Va., says that’s exactly where the future of fuel retail is going. “Just ask any teenager. They’d just as soon leave their wallet home than their phone,” he says. 

Taylor envisions mobile devices such as smartphones taking the place of point-of-sale (POS) systems as they are today. Imagine a fuel island with no traditional POS anywhere—instead, customers interface on their smartphones. This migration away from the POS as it exists today will also give merchants the opportunity to seek creative solutions to escape the ever-rising interchange fees imposed by credit card companies.

In the absence of plastic cards, new methods of payment will be pushed to the forefront.

“We don’t see the mobile phone as the end-all, be-all solution, but we see it as a complementary solution to a number of channels based on how digital natives start to expand their channel horizons,” says Adam Glauberman, loyalty marketing manager for BP. 

Alexa voice computing is already available in some vehicles, and more cars every day are coming off production lines with smart dashboards. Whether through touch, voice or a combination of the two, customers will be able to purchase fuel with little more than a few phrases and a couple of taps on a screen.

“The long-term vision is that somebody can drive in, get out, fill up and just drive off.”

Secure the Future

How will retailers keep these transactions secure? 

Taylor believes the identity of consumers will be stored in digital tokens. In the future, he says our identities will be stored in these “very difficult to hack” tokens, which will prove identities and allow consumers to access merchant networks. Hackers could steal these digital tokens, but they will be anonymized and worthless out of context, he says.

Taylor likens his tokenized approach to data security to swimming through a polluted river. Today’s security systems attempt to drain the metaphorical pollutants of computer systems through firewalls, encryption and other cybersecurity measures. 

Both he and Buck predict that reliable cybersecurity will be vital to ensure buy-in from consumers for tomorrow’s methods of payment at the pump. “It’s a marketing problem,” Taylor says, “because the technology exists today. I can get cheap ... software and connect it to a cheap camera at a fuel dispenser, and I can tell you what your age is. ... I can even recognize you if I have existential data behind that to validate who you are.”

Fuel retailers must offer a high degree of personalization to their customers in exchange for the personal information gleaned from such technology, Buck says. “People do want personalization, and people are willing to give you their data as long as they feel like the value equation is being paid back,” she says. Personalization isn’t simply a buzzword for loyalty options; it also applies to payment. Buck envisions customers paying from a menu of options, including smartphones, in-car dashboards and voice computing.

Compared to the experience of shopping with Amazon, whether online or in a physical store, pumping gas looks and feels robotic. “It isn’t like an Amazon experience where you can choose how you want the things delivered: You can choose how you pay,” Buck says. “Everything is personalized. The gas station experience isn’t like that.”