Filling a car with petrol is a pretty simple process; pull up at bowser, open filler cap, insert nozzle, pump petrol, pay, go. Takes maybe three minutes, tops, and with minimal effort on your part.

So if ever there was a process that doesn’t need automation, filling your car with fuel would rank right up there.

But that hasn’t stopped Sinopec, one of China’s largest producers of oil and gas and the second-largest petrol retailer in the world, from reinventing the wheel.

Sinopec began trialling its robotic fuel fillers in 2021, using one of its petrol stations in the city of Nanning in China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, as a real-world test bed.\

While the act of you or I pumping some petrol into our cars is relatively simple, Sinopec’s robotic fuel filler takes that simple process and complicates it a thousand-fold. The easiest part of the process is placing the order, which customers can do via Sinopec’s smartphone-based app.

From there, the machines take over, its robotic arms swinging and dancing into action. Identifying the location of the fuel filler cap – and it’s been programmed to recognise the shape, colour and position of fuel caps on different brands and models of cars – the robot first unscrews the fuel cap, before inserting the nozzle into the tank.

After refuelling, the robot returns the nozzle to the bowser before replacing and closing the fuel flap and returning to its original position at the bowser. The driver, having paid for their petrol via the app, is free to motor on.

The whole process takes around three minutes which is about the same time as it would take you or I to fill up our tanks the old-fashioned way.

Of course, the obvious question is ‘Why’? Why create a complex technological answer to a simple human question?

The answer lies in China’s service station industry. Unlike almost all of the rest of the world, China’s petrol stations are largely staffed by attendants, human beings who do the dirty work of filling your car with fuel for you.

It’s a bit of a throwback to the earlier days of motoring where, up until the 1960s, service station attendants filled your car with petrol, checked your oil, and maybe gave your windows a bit of a sponge bath.

That all changed in 1964 when an entrepreneurial fella by the name of John Roscoe installed self-service fuel bowsers at his chains of convenience stores in Colorado. Able to sell fuel cheaper than his full-service rivals – thanks to no pesky labour cost overheads – customers soon flocked to Roscoe’s DIY bowsers.

Australia followed suit in the 1970s with Shell opening the first two self-service petrol stations, in the Sydney suburbs of Hurstville and Carlton (pictured, above – photos: Fairfax archives).

The petrol-buying world hasn’t looked back, and today you’d be hard-pressed to find a full-service petrol station anywhere in the world – except in New Jersey where self-serve petrol pumps are banned to this day.

China now looks set to follow suit, albeit with Sinopec’s robotic fuel attendant leading the way. According to Sinopec, around 30,000 of the clever machines will be rolled out across its service stations in China, while similar setups have been trialled in Denmark and Finland, the solution to a problem we didn’t know existed.

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