Shell Bought An Electric Vehicle Charging Startup. That's A Big Deal.

The First Gas Station

In 1885, Sylvanus Freelove Bowser invented and sold his kerosene pump to a grocery store in Fort Wayne Indiana. 18 years later Gulf Oil opened the ‘Good Gulf Gasoline’ station in St. Louis. And 2 years later the first purposely built drive-in gasoline service station was opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

While the original version of the pump dispensed kerosene, in 1905, seeing the trends and adoption of the automobile, Bowser attached a hose for dispensing gasoline directly into the car. This requirement to fuel gas-guzzling cars led to immense growth for The Bowser company (and wealth for S.F. Bowser).



The continued relevance of the oil industry (and a resurgence)

We all watched as hundreds of thousands of people lost oil and gas jobs after the price crashes in 2014–2016. And then, just as the resurgence started, we all stopped paying attention.


Similar to Bowser realizing the money was in gasoline and not kerosene, the oil companies are accepting that their traditional business model might fall as the trends shift away from gasoline. With crazy projections that a barrel of oil will go in price down to $10) the companies have to do something fast and are taking the tried and tested approach to staving off disruption:

  1. Adopting new technology by digitizing everything: The oil industry hasn’t picked up the employees it lost when prices crashed around this time last year. The industry doesn’t need to because of the embrace of what we’re all now screaming of; the Internet of Things. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has been table stakes (base requirements to even compete) in the old & gas industry for the last~ 20 years. It’s how the industry has managed oil rigs 60 miles offshore and controlled heavy assets in remote locations across the world. It’s how bursts are tracked along thousands of miles of pipeline. Some digitization use cases (diagram below) all point to one thing, fewer employees are required to increase profit margins in a fast changing industry.
  2. Acquiring companies that present a risk well before the risk is evident: There are few things as ubiquitous as a gas station and as salient as your fuel gauge telling you it’s time to refuel your car. There are currently ~122k gas stations in the US. As more people shift to buying electric cars one expects to see the growth of electric car charging stations in the US. There are currently ~20k electric cars in the US but projections are that this will grow exponentially. In recognition of ongoing electrification of the automobile industry (the last industry to fall to electrification), Royal Dutch Shell (the 6th largest oil company in the world) just acquired Newmotion, an electric charging company with 30k stations. That’s more charging stations than all of the US has. It shouldn’t surprise anyone since we all have views that we soon won’t need oil to power our cars? The future will look a lot like the past in that we’ll pull into a Shell station, as we always used to, and fill up by charging our electric cars.


The Oil Industry As A Disruptor?

As we become more comfortable with the cyclical decline in the price of oil and as electric cars become more of a status symbol (thanks, Tesla!), oil companies are looking to other markets for new business models. The easiest option is to look at markets that are the disruptive replacement for their old model. In addressing the disruption, the oil industry is unintentionally encroaching on the business model of an analog industry, the electric utility, through its most trusted asset; the ‘gas’ station. This is inevitable as our vehicles become electrified and the batteries in our cars also serve as power storage units for the electricity we use in our homes.

I think the oil companies will win this battle against the electric utility. Oil companies will win this battle because they already have a relationship with the customer. A relationship that the traditional utility does not have (and would die for); we drive and fuel our cars at a frequency unmatched by any engagement with the power utility.

According to EVvolumes, and as shown in the chart below, ‘Plug-in volumes have more than tripled since 2013 and continuing on last years growth rate of 42 % would mean 8 out of 10 cars sold in 2030 would be Plug-ins’. Shell is well aware of this trend and, along with other players in the industry, are paying a lot of attention to the adoption cycle here. Especially as entities like RMI suggest that the growth of the cars will trail the growth of charging stations.


The electric charging stations on every major street corner will also benefit from the ‘salience of fuel prices’, a hold on effect from gas stations. This effect explains why we all drive a few more blocks just to save a few cents on the price of gas, we see the price of gas every single time we pass a station. It’s an effect that adds a much needed engagement layer to the experience with our electricity.


Cars will pull up and fuel up…

I painted with my son just this past weekend using another petroleum by-product, crayons. Considering how quickly technology is moving, he will grow up in a world where this might not be the case. His own child (if he chooses to have any) will probably paint on digital displays that store art somewhere in some cloud server.

And his self-driving car will charge from the renewable energy on his roof or from energy bought from the good ol’ electric charging-station owned by Shell.

He’ll also know how much that electric charge costs.

Just like the mobile phone companies got us to pay attention, and killed landlines in the process, the oil companies might just kill the power company by getting us to pay attention… and they’d have recognized that your best opportunities come from riding the wave of the prevailing trends.

Just like Sylvanus Bowser realised with kerosene and gasoline…