How better design can save five million litres of fuel per year in the UK

Did you ever wish there was an “Undo” button in real life? Even though the digital world is more forgiving, and more error-tolerant, we (UX designers) are obsessed down to the smallest details with making the user experience online better and better. Why don’t we take the same attitudes offline? What if we ask “are you sure?” before allowing a user to make irreversible action? Or even better — let’s make it harder to make mistakes. I want to share with you a real life problem, that demands this approach. As a designer and problem solver I’d like to speculate on what can and should be done.

The Problem

Did you notice what’s wrong with the image above? I wouldn’t if I hadn’t draw it myself.

Recently I put the wrong fuel in my car by accident. I put petrol in my diesel VW Golf luckily I noticed it before starting the car. It still set me back £180 and two hours of wasted time. But if I had started it, it could cost me a car, as the repairs in my case would overcome the total price of my good old Golf.

Researching more about the problem later on I’ve learned some staggering facts about the scale of the problem.

“150,000 motorists put the wrong fuel in their vehicle every year In the UK alone” says The AA’s website.

If you take the minimum cost of recovery at £175 per case, it costs UK motorists each year at least £26,25 million and results in massive waste of approximately five million litres of contaminated fuel per year (if you consider half the average car tank per accident). This is just in the UK, it was hard to find global numbers, but I assume the scale of this issue is massive.

Diesel cars account for 95% of these misfueling cases. There are 35.0 million vehicles in the UK, every third one is diesel, so there are 11.7 millions of diesel car owners which are potentially at risk of making the same costly mistake.

From a user experience perspective (where motorists are users), it’s a massive failure of the product (car) and the system that maintains it (fuel pumps, car producers, garages, DVLA) because it’s tolerance for error is zero. In this case, the error is so easy to make and costs so much both to users and the environment.

Existing solutions are not covering everyone

The problem has existed for decades and inevitably all sorts of solutions have appeared during this time. BMW has solved the problem for new cars by fitting misfueling devices in all new cars and VW , Skoda do the same, and may be others that I don’t know of. There are also third party misfueling prevention devices like this one. While these are big steps in the right direction, they cover only a portion of users and won’t stop another 150,000 motorists in UK with old diesels making the same misfueling mistake next year. It’s a ‘human error’ and hence the majority of insurance companies won’t cover it either, even if you have comprehensive breakdown insurance. So what else can be done?

Design Solutions

From what I’ve found all solutions have been focused around the car, and that makes sense as the car suffers the damage. But perhaps there is more effective way to prevent it? There are 4500 cars per petrol station in UK and one third of them are diesel, that makes solving the problem at the pump more efficient, approximately 1500 times more efficient.

Petrol Dispenser. Source Wikipedia

It might be possible to redesign the fuel dispenser so it detects that it’s a ‘wrong’ fuel tank and doesn’t engage at all. Instead gives a warning message to the driver of “wrong fuel”.

Fuel dispensers already prevent overfilling tanks with automatic cut-off system and some modern ones even have vapor recovery systems. It would be only a natural evolution of its design to prevent misfueling as well.

It could be a retro-fitted add-on for the fuel nozzle, perhaps a device you can fit instead of your fuel cap.

More ‘Sci-fi’ solution: if fuel stations are fitted with cameras and number plate recognition systems, the software that controls fuel pump sales, could only engage the right fuel pump by knowing the type of the car standing next to a pump, hence preventing costly error.

Cheapest solution: a placeholder advert on the fuel dispenser saying “advertise here”, it could say “are you sure this is the correct fuel?”.

Opportunity for fuel companies

Either way the organisations which have a real possibility to improve fuel dispensers are the fuel companies, who maintain and replace them.

It is real opportunity for any fuel company to increase their customers satisfaction, lower impact on the environment and be innovative! If those reasons are not good enough, then here is another one — and it’s increasing brand loyalty and hence increasing number of customers and profits. I’m talking about fuel companies taking some actions to improve UX of the pumps and prevent misfueling for all cars forever.

The first fuel company that does this, can make an advertising campaign, at the same time raising the awareness in general. The start can be signage and better visual design on the pump, the ultimate solution — a prevention mechanism for those absent minded people like me that can miss all reminders.

Spread the word

We can raise awareness of the problem and perhaps warn as many drivers as possible that misfueling can cost them a car, and it’s easier to make this mistake than you think. Tweet about it, tell your friends, put a sticker next to your fuel cap. I‘ve made this mistake already, but you can avoid it!