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Nissan and Foster+Partners miss an opportunity to rethink the fuel station

16 March 2016 | by Karl Smith

Last August we reported on Nissan's collaboration with international architecture firm Foster+Partners to create a proposal for the fuel station of the future, albeit a future clearly defined by Nissan's leading market position in the electric-car segment.

The two firms have now revealed the results, and for those hoping for a contemporary modernist Foster building – and radical update of the fuel stations the firm designed for Spanish firm Repsol in 1997 – there was disappointment, as the projects' conclusions was that the fuel station of the future should actually be the car itself.

Foster+Partners' plan necessitates a total redesign of the electric grid in cities that channels electricity generated by free, renewable solar, wave and wind sources into wireless charging points built into existing street parking infrastructure.

Nissan Foster Partners Fuel Station 7

Using autonomous technology, parked electric cars would then move around, finding a spot to recharge overnight then return back to the owner's home to assist in powering the household when fully charged. However, although charged wirelessly on the street, a physical connection between car and home is shown in the film. Does the car knock on the door to get the owner to plug it in?

Nissan Foster Partners Fuel Station 5

The car would also be charged at the driver's office, although with such levels of hyper-connectivity between infrastructure, added to current communications tech, it's hard to see why something as seemingly old-school as an office would be required.

Foster’s proposal means that the grid system itself, distributing power all over the city, is the charging system for tomorrow’s car, not a dedicated place like an old-school petrol station, while the car becomes a mobile fuel station. It is certainly a very techno-utopian vision to say the least, and one that would require a wholesale restructuring of a city’s power grid and involve an enormous financial undertaking that would require a public/private partnership of epic proportions.

And as the video suggests that the electricity would be free, it seems like the finances might not have been that thoroughly thought through, aside from giving Nissan a way to recycle old Leaf batteries in a Tesla-style Powerwall. We've heard of 'bricking' your phone when it's stolen, but this takes it to another level.

We had hoped that the project proposal would be more comprehensive, and take on the challenge of reviving a rather moribund building type – the fuelling station itself – which is a rather trickier prospect but one that could also be facilitated by current electric-car technology.

Widely regarded as a necessary evil, the modern fuel station is a place where people attempt to spend a minimum of time. In the near-term, the time it takes to recharge an electric car means that people are obliged to stick around, clearly something that fantastic, modernist architecture could help to improve.

Nissan Foster Partners Fuel Station 12

Skovshoved Tankstation, by Arne Jacobsen, still in use today

From the Arne Jacobsen station prototype for Texaco in Denmark in 1936, to Richard Neutra 'Standard Station' prototype, and the Elliot Noyes (of IBM graphics fame) design for a standard Mobil station type, there's a history of fuel stations being the most advanced buildings, in terms of industrial design, in any town. It's a shame that an opportunity to revisit this tradition has been missed, leaving the fuel station reduced to a miniature retail centre that just happens to sell petrol, while the Apple Store takes the role as the showcase of advanced design and technology.

Nissan Foster Partners Fuel Station 10

It's a sign of changing times, but we can't help but feel like this project represents a missed opportunity. Driving a car isn't just about the environment within the vehicle, it's an experience that runs through dealers, garages and fuel stations, too, and one where designers can make a significant impact.

Being seen to take the lead on improving the service station as a point of contact for customers could help significantly boost the appeal of electric car ownership – a Foster-designed environment nicer than your own home to enjoy while your Leaf gets a boost seems like a better place to start, albeit one considerably more expensive for the carmaker than a two-minute video.