Most Australian states and territories help their drivers to save hundreds of dollars a year by finding the cheapest available petrol at the click of a button.
However, Victoria and the ACT remain holdouts when it comes to fostering more fuel-price transparency.
The South Australian and Tasmanian governments have come in from the cold, with both recently announcing they would follow NSW, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland in mandating that petrol retailers report their prices, so that mobile phone app developers can present them to drivers in real time.
Real price transparency like this is one of the revolutions in modern consumerism.
Economists talk about “information asymmetry”, where one party to a transaction possesses greater material knowledge than the other party.
However, easily available apps are finally enabling us to even the score – especially with wildly variable petrol prices.
Pricing data is crucial to make markets more competitive and keep prices down.
We can shop around for cheaper electricity, mortgages and telco products because we can see what each provider is offering on comparison websites.
However, some industries have resisted the change. Insurance is one of them. Petrol is another.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission says that, nationally, making the most of fuel-price transparency apps to hunt for cheap petrol could save motorists $275 million a year.
In Sydney, a driver can save more than $340 for the year, in Melbourne almost $150, in Brisbane almost $230, in Perth more than $210 and in Adelaide almost $160.
There have been numerous examples that have shown up on price apps where two petrol stations located less than 1km apart were charging 50¢ a litre difference for basic unleaded fuel. That’s more than $20 a tank.
A quick glance at Melbourne prices this week showed a 23¢ difference for premium unleaded 95 between a BP in Brighton and a 7-11 in Malvern. That’s about $14 when filling up a standard 60-litre tank. Fill up once a week and it adds up to about a $730 a year potential saving simply by using an app and shopping around.
The SA government got on board the app program after its Productivity Commission found the “additional annual benefit to consumers would be around $5 million”.
However, the ACCC’s estimate is much higher.
In Queensland, Griffith University researchers are assessing the results of a two-year petrol price apps trial and have found that, so far, it has saved drivers “about $10 million in Brisbane and about $14 million in south-east Queensland per year”.
About one in five drivers now use apps when they are shopping for petrol and their numbers are growing fast.
My favourite national apps are Motormouth and FuelMap but there are many other good products available, including GasBuddy and PetrolSpy.
Most state governments have created their own state-based apps – FuelCheck in NSW, MyFuelNT and FuelWatch in WA – as have motoring clubs including NRMA, RACQ, RACV, RAA and RACWA.
They are more popular with younger drivers and in higher socio-economic circles, the research shows, but they are fast becoming mainstream.
So what about Victoria? Why is Australia’s second-largest state, with almost four million cars on the road, dragging the chain on this commonsense petrol price app reform?