As digital wallet services like Apple Pay and Google Pay continue to integrate themselves into our smartphones, automakers have taken note. Considering most modern cars feature tablet-style infotainment centers built directly into the dashboard, developing a similar way to conduct transactions from your vehicle seems inevitable.
But is it poised to be the new normal or just an optional companion feature akin to FM radio and Sirius XM? A recent partnership between General Motors Co. and oil giant Royal Dutch Shell indicates the former.
Shell Gets Connected
Earlier this year, GM and Shell unveiled a new in-dash payment service called Shell Pay & Save. The service offers drivers of eligible GM vehicles the ability to pay for fuel at Shell-branded gas stations via their vehicle’s infotainment system. The process occurs without the need for a wallet or smartphone. Shell sees it as a cornerstone of vehicle ownership.
“The goal with Shell Pay & Save is to improve the customer experience and encourage consumers to visit Shell,” Shell Retail Digital Platform project manager Matt Whaley told Trucks.com. “This is a big step in the industry.”
The list of compatible cars includes 2017 and later models from Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac and GMC that feature the GM Marketplace app. Upon arriving at a Shell gas station, drivers select the Shell Pay & Save app within the GM Marketplace and follow a few on-screen prompts to launch the system.
When the Shell icon is tapped, the app generates a unique code to allow the driver access to a specific pump. Once the transaction occurs, it automatically charges the driver’s stored method of payment.
Its potential benefits are enticing. Faster and more convenient than plastic, the Shell Pay & Save app also offers loyalty savings via a rewards program. After cashing in on an introductory 25 cent-per- gallon savings upon signing up for the app, Fuel Rewards members also gain 5 cent-per-gallon discounts on future fill-ups of up to 20 gallons.
On a recent road trip from Houston to Austin, Texas, Trucks.com tested the tech. After pulling into a Shell station and picking the desired pump, we found that the Shell Pay & Save app worked as advertised. With just a small amount of in-dash navigation and the input of a generated pin into the pump, we began fueling our car in a matter of minutes.
During the trip, we drove 2019 editions of GM SUVs, including the GMC Yukon XL Denali, Cadillac XT5 and Cadillac Escalade ESV, as well as 2018 models of the Chevy Equinox and GMC Canyon Denali. All offered access to the GM Marketplace.
With five vehicles using Shell Pay & Save at the same time and gas pumps only feet away from one another, it worked without issue.
Monetizing Car Owners After the Sell
Shell Pay & Save’s ability to alter someone’s gas station experience extends far beyond just fueling a car.
From the moment a new car owner signs on the dotted line, automakers don’t see much in consistent recurring income. Outside of scheduled maintenance or the rare additional vehicle purchase, most new-car owners have a distinct ceiling in terms of how much money they’ll continue to kick to automakers after buying a car.
The GM Marketplace, along with similar in-dash infotainment systems, appears to be the solution. Despite mitigating the chance for someone to buy a Snickers bar and a Dr Pepper while filling up, in-dash payment has the ability to line everyone’s pockets – driver included.
“In-car transaction capability is a key new arena for the car,” said Mike Ramsey, Gartner Inc.’s research director of Automotive and Smart Mobility. “As a car’s display becomes more functional, and integrated with a better voice-activation system, paying for fuel, food, hotels, or even a software package that increases horsepower, will be attainable.”
Auto market analyst Alan Baum sees a similar trajectory but also feels that one of the key steps to monetizing car owners is keeping infotainment development in-house. Not only would this allow automakers to reap their own rewards but it also would prevent other tech giants from gaining market leverage with drivers.
“[Automakers] don’t want to go to Apple or Google for these systems and lose the connection with their customer, or lose the connection with the money,” Baum told Trucks.com. “Customers don’t necessarily agree with that, however, because you don’t want to learn a new system. But if it’s done well, it’s not that hard to learn.”
The Stiff Competition of Apple and Google
Keeping Google or Apple out of the picture is much easier said than done. With Apple CarPlay and Android Auto representing two of the most popular car apps available, an automaker like GM would need to convince drivers to use its own marketplace while still offering connectivity to the competition.
The leg up any automaker would have, however, is knowing how its system would interact directly with its vehicle. Using the knowledge and history of a vehicle gives the manufacturer better insight into the driver’s relationship to the vehicle – and to the infotainment center.
“Car companies are saying, ‘Look, these are [systems] that are already in the car, so we’re going to give you additional connectivity and additional content, because we know the car better,’ ” Baum added. “But these companies have to get the content right, and they have to get the user interface right. In general, that’s been difficult for them to accomplish.”
Even if the user experience remains as simple as our time with the Shell app, the GM ecosystem would need to continuously convince people to choose a vehicle’s infotainment system over their own smartphones. Apple and Google’s agnostic connectivity systems can be used with any compatible car. That puts automakers in an even deeper hole with regard to their interface.
“The one thing these automakers need to ask themselves is, ‘Is it going to be as good or as easy to use as Apple CarPlay or Android Auto?’ The answer is typically no,” said Baum. “Those companies can spend a ton of money on it, and smartphones and connectivity are a central part of their business plan.”
Shell Pay & Save and Beyond
The best way for any automaker to sever a driver from his or her phone is to offer something the phone doesn’t. In GM and Shell’s case, that’s fuel. By offering savings and reward points and automatically handling payment, it creates a desire to want to use the app. Even Apple Pay and Google Pay require the added step of taking out your phone. For GM, finding other unusual ways to build on that desire to use its system is crucial.
“Your phone is probably a better device for buying a lot of things, but in a car, there are plenty of times when having your car automatically communicate with services would be a real benefit,” Ramsey said. “Parking location and reservation is being integrated into vehicles, and the payment aspect is the next frontier.”
The GM Marketplace already offers a suite of available in-dash shopping options such as McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts and even Office Depot. In addition to offering a payment system for each, the apps also offer directions via the in-dash GPS, exclusive deals, specific details on each business location and information pertaining to savings or rewards programs.
To Ramsey, it’s only a matter of time before such services are an industry standard.
“It’s easy to imagine the car handling virtually every purchase made while on the road,” he said. “Whether [you’re] stopping at McDonald’s or going through tolls.”
Editor’s note: Photos by Rick Stella, Trucks.com.