Progress or fattiness? Why we’ll soon buy gas, food and other goods from our cars

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We have the power to configure a Papa John’s pizza on our computers, like we would a new car, and then email that order to the local shop without so much as lifting a cell phone and holding its weight to our ears. Progress, we’re told. Or, like in Disney’s “Wall-E” dystopia, is it a progression to total laziness, in which we’re bedridden in¬†autonomous hover rafts, ordering sodas from screens and blabbering aimlessly to faraway people while ignoring those who are physically with us?

Social media and smartphones indicate we’re well on our way to a Wall-E world, as even the most inane automated tasks pop up as innovations. For drivers, that means being able to buy gas and look for open parking spaces several blocks out, all from your car’s super bright screen. Software company SAP is partnering with Volkswagen to develop a cloud-based network in which gas station pumps learn about your travels and parking garages can send you live updates before they’re crowded. In particular, those credit card machines built into nearly every pump will be obsolete. Instead, you’ll pay for fuel with your car automatically — and for that, marketers will find out many miles you’ve driven, how many people are in the car, where you’re headed and any number of details you tacitly agree to share. It’s currently in a pilot program in Hannover, Germany and designed to fix the “everyday inefficiencies city drivers face around the world,” according to Gil Perez, SAP’s senior vice president of connected vehicles.

We spoke to Perez, and it’s clear that automakers want to be a part of your everyday transactions, above and beyond your car payments and service bills. Perez envisions a future where points of interest (POIs) on a car navigation system become “points of profit” — so that the automaker is directly involved whenever you buy something. Gas stations would have wireless transmitters to talk to each car upon arrival and complete the purchase. The convenience, as imagined, would free drivers of taking out their wallets and handing over cash or swiping a card. Of course, drivers in New Jersey, Oregon and other states where pumping your own gas is illegal have been paying inside their cars for decades. Who could have thought that without wireless networks, clouds and multi-gesture touch screens, it’d be so easy?

How automakers would take a cut of the gas price is uncertain, and just how much money there is to be made from in-car purchases is also uncharted territory. Would the LCD screens blasting commercials at the pump suddenly switch to pepperoni specials if they knew you had ordered that same pizza a day earlier? Indeed, Perez says he wants to extend SAP’s purchasing software to food orders so that it’s “like a concierge” for location-based services. This, however, requires a lot of cooperation and data sharing from automakers, which aren’t really open to the idea of giving up all of their precious in-car information — such as a vehicle’s mileage, age, model, and other stats — to third parties. Perez calls them “the laggards” — “they want to hold back data beyond [on-board diagnostics] from third parties” — but says that “high quality” services like its wireless gas station concept may make automakers have second thoughts.

Already, Audi offers live parking data via its Audi connect service in select U.S. cities. Local fuel prices are becoming more common in newer navigation systems, along with Zagat restaurant reviews, OpenTable reservations, Google and Bing web searches, and other internet-friendly apps built straight into the car. We’ve got drive-thru pharmacies popping up around the country, along with the thousands of drive-thru fast-food and coffee joints at our command. The cars are driving themselves these days, too. Might as well make them hover while we’re at it.

Clifford Atiyeh

Clifford Atiyeh

Clifford Atiyeh has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own. Based in Connecticut, he writes for BestRide, Car and Driver, The Boston Globe and other publications.