You may never have considered its existence, but the humble servo has accompanied you everywhere.

From refuelling the car to buying an ice cream on a hot day or picking up supplies on a road trip — it has been a hallmark of most Australian lives.

But in the decades to come, the service station as you know it could cease to exist.

Just how electric vehicles and alternate fuels like hydrogen will change the petrol station of the future is Ashley Lang’s area of expertise.

“There’ll be increasing options for the reuse of these sites as we see a shift away from hydrocarbon fuels towards electric,” Ms Lang said.

A strategist at AECOM, a major infrastructure company, she works with large fuel retailers and says they are already diversifying — fuel margins mean stations rely on retail to make money.

“We’ve seen these sites, over the past 10 to 15 years, diversify into retail and other areas like food and parcel pick up, drop-off dry cleaning — that kind of thing,” she said.

Stations are more likely to make a profit fuelling drivers with coffee and energy drinks than by fuelling their cars.

But without the need to store hazardous, flammable fuels, service stations could open to a variety of business, or even community spaces, especially those in central locations, Ms Lang said.

“We’re definitely going to see a shift away from fuelling, some of these sites won’t be fuelling at all,” she said.

“Rather, they’ll be community and or retail spaces that have a greater diversity of use.”

Won’t we charge electric vehicles at servos?

Researchers at Australian National University are exploring the role electric cars could eventually play in securing the nation’s power grid.

“[We’re] demonstrating how we can use the energy stored in electric vehicles for external uses,” Dr Bjorn Sturmberg said.

“Such as when storms knock out transmission lines, but the same technology can be used to power homes or business.”

The technology could help manage the strain millions of electric vehicles would put on the power supply, he said.

But it would change where and how electric vehicles were charged.

“There’s going to be a lot less need for charging stations, particularly in towns and to service commuters and day-to-day use of vehicles,” Dr Sturmberg said.

“That I think will be covered by charging at home and at work and maybe when you’re at the shops, but there’ll still be a need for service stations on long trips.”

A hand holds a plug towards the open charging port of an electric car.
ANU researchers are exploring the role electric cars could eventually play in securing the nation’s power grid.(Supplied: CSIRO)

Why aren’t regional servos installing charging points now?

Across the highways and arterial roads of regional Victoria, independent fuel retailer APCO is adding to its network of service stations.

But the company is not installing electric vehicle charging points at its new regional sites.

APCO director Peter Anderson said he was approached by companies keen to install charging points at his stations and he was not opposed to the idea.

“But they want to walk in and take over the site for free, they don’t want to pay rent, and we’re not prepared to do that,” Mr Anderson said.

While the electric vehicle market remains so small, he does not consider charging stations as a necessary customer service.

“I’m not thinking about electric cars having an impact on our business at this stage,” he said.

In the current climate, most charging station installation has been possible because of government grants, according to Adrian Kinderis, CEO of a new charging station start-up.

Aiming to install free chargers in regional Victoria through collaborations with vehicle manufacturers and local government — the model incentivises electric vehicle use but does not turn charging into a viable business.

By avoiding the installation of chargers in petrol stations, he wants to draw drivers off the highways and into regional towns.

“There’s no need to be stuck inside a service station, spending your time that way,” Mr Kinderis said.

Outback roadhouse and fuel stop
ANU researcher Dr Sturmberg says service stations will still be needed on long trips.(The Drone Way: Ben Stamatovich)

Will I see a servo of the future in my lifetime?

But given how quickly technology is changing, and the possibility of high-speed charging, he acknowledges the model may have to keep adapting.

The three major fuel retailers in Australia — Viva (Shell), Caltex and BP — declined to speak to the ABC about how an increase in electric vehicles would change service stations.

But in Europe, they are already adapting.

The Guardian UK recently reported Shell hoped to double the number of rapid chargers it had at its stations this year, and BP had invested in an Israeli battery company developing fast chargers.

Meanwhile, in Australia most people agree on one thing — unless there are major policy changes at a federal government level, the service station of the future is decades away.

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