What can we learn from the panic at the petrol pump

The last week has been a good one for electric vehicle drivers compared to their internal combustion engine (ICE) counterparts. With queues forming at petrol stations as people panic to buy fuel for fear of supplies running out, EV drivers have been able to able to charge at home and have not only the luxury of not having to queue to add fuel to their car but also the confidence in their own supply.

Creating panic from nothing

Like most panic buying sagas, it is the extra demand that creates the shortage, rather than a decrease in the availability of goods. Let’s have a look at the numbers to see why things get out of hand.

The average car tank in the UK holds about 50 litres of fuel or about £68 in current prices for those who prefer to think in monetary terms rather than volume. Whilst this is the maximum amount a tank can hold, the actual level held in cars is much lower at about 40% on average across the UK.

Tanks are rarely topped up above 90% full because stopping for £10 refuels is generally not worth the time. Instead, we wait until we see the red fuel light warning us that the tank is only 10% full, we opportunistically top up at say, 25%, or we make visiting a petrol station part of our routine and top up only on a specific weekday. Always a good excuse to sneak off to buy a chocolate bar on a Sunday evening too! Petrol suppliers understand this behaviour and plan their operations accordingly to ensure the pumps don’t run dry.

However, when people panic buy our re-fuelling behaviour changes.

Petrol Station

Queueing at a petrol station to top up cars, jerry cans, and bin bags

For the purposes of our calculations, let’s assume that out of the 30 million cars in the UK the owners of 5 million of these are no longer going to follow the usual pattern, and want to ensure that their tanks are always at least half full.

To make things simple, we’re going to say that each of those 5 million cars are topped up with an extra 20 litres of petrol over a weekend – what it would take to keep the fuel tank at 80% rather than 40%. That equates to an additional 100 million litres of fuel bought in a relatively short period.

Weekly fuel demand

In the UK, we purchased about 13 billion litres of fuel in the last 12 months. To supply this, petrol stations store fuel to supply a weekly amount which equates to about 250 million litres.  

So over a weekend of panic buying, our estimated 5 million drivers buy an extra 100 million litres on top of the normal demand of 250 million litres a week. This means the stocks that would normally have lasted for a week are rapidly depleted. This of course, triggers a new set of panic buyers desperate to ensure they have enough petrol to keep them on the road and potentially higher demand from those unable to do their Sunday re-fuel due to queues.

At the same time, the system simply cannot supply fuel quickly enough. Petrol stations have a fixed capacity and petrol suppliers are efficiently run businesses which means that they own just enough tankers to meet the normal demands. Even if we were able to find more HGV drivers, they wouldn’t necessarily have any tankers to drive.

As with any panic-buying frenzy, we expect this one to subside quickly. Those that have panic bought should purchase less fuel over the next few weeks as they deplete the fuel in their tanks. And those who didn’t panic buy, may have been forced to drive less and wait a little longer to refuel so the gap between demand and supply will naturally fall.

Learnings in an EV charging context

Although EV drivers were able to sit this one out, the dynamic about fuel remaining is fascinating when we think about EV charging. For many, range anxiety is a serious problem, while others say they aren’t too bothered particularly as the charging infrastructure improves.

What I want to understand is the how people might behave when it comes to how much remaining charge they desire in their vehicles. I would expect for some they will follow a similar pattern to how we keep our ICE tanks fuelled and only top-up when their batteries fall below a 50% charge.

Australian Road

Could EV range anxiety mean panic-buying at the charging station?

However, with the issue of range anxiety still prominent in a lot of people’s minds, there will be a significant proportion who are determined to keep their batteries topped up as high as possible, and there will also be situations where people want to top up just because they can.

For example, at motorway services or supermarkets I believe many EV drivers will choose to top up even if their battery has a charge of more than 70%. This is likely to reduce the availability of EV charging points for those who really need them unless a mechanism is used to discourage the behaviour.

Areas with reduced EV charging coverage are also likely to trigger this panicky behaviour, either due to a lack of supply or the quality of the chargers in the vicinity. We are all aware of the last petrol for 500 miles signs around the world. The last decent charger this side of Loch Duich may become a similar phenomenon.

Price might not be the lever used

Of course, saying that using price to discourage EV charging is controversial. Penalty rates for overstaying or a higher cost per kWh for in demand charging points may just about be acceptable but if petrol stations had doubled their prices in the last week we would have had outrage at price gouging. As EV charging becomes more mainstream, we can expect negative feedback from extreme dynamic pricing.

What do we want to explore

We are just fascinated by the potential variability in EV charging demand. Understanding these behaviours and building better user experiences for this is vital to Eloy.