By 2030, an estimated 20% of all cars sold will be electric vehicles. And by 2035, states like California will ban the sale of gas-powered vehicles. Soon, the gas station, as we know it, could be extinct, replaced by an exponential demand for electric vehicle charging stations. And that will change the way we go on road trips forever.
So we asked the San Francisco design firm NewDealDesign (known for creating products ranging from the original FitBit to the Postmates delivery robot) to imagine how all of our signage will have to change in this new era. Would the blue gas station signs we have on the side of highways still make sense in this new world?
What they responded with was a sign concept that could boost the economies of small town America.
Instead of being color-printed metal, the sign itself is an e-ink display—something like a big Kindle on a stick. That means the sign can be continuously updated, reads well in sunlight, and uses so little power that it could run on solar energy alone.
Rather than display a gasoline or energy icon, the sign displays a local tourist attraction and the distance to it. If your car has a self-driving vision system, it could even be programmed to recognize a code on this sign and route your GPS right to the sight. Meanwhile, a ring of LEDs around the display could glow red, green, or any other color to indicate if the attraction is open or closed.
The big idea: Instead of your pulling off at some random truck stop to fill up as we do now, stations would be located just far enough off the beaten path, which the sign would woo you to—thereby routing traffic back through small towns everywhere.
The premise makes a lot of sense because EVs will forcibly change our behavior on road trips. It takes just 2-3 minutes to gas up a car. Meanwhile, the common DC Fast Charging standard used by electric cars today requires 20-40 minutes to juice up the vehicle. That means people traveling across the country will have serious time to kill, the sort of time that would be wasted looking through mystery meats spinning on the truck stop’s roller grill.
“Given the fact you’ll need to spend half an hour charging, no matter what, why not take 5-10 minutes to see a new place?” says Gadi Amit, founder of NewDealDesign.
It’s a tempting trade-off. If you were willing to drive 5 to 10 minutes off the highway, you could perhaps have lunch at a cute café, walk through a farmer’s market, or explore a historic building. By traveling just a bit out of your way, you could extend the adventure of your vacation without losing much time.
Amit and his team were inspired by the movie Cars, the Pixar cartoon in which a small Route 66 town was brought back to life with an injection of tourism from Lightning McQueen. As it turns out, road-trip revenue can generate serious dollars. According to AAA, Americans take around 700 million road trips a year, particularly for summer vacations. During the average year, 87% of summer trips are road trips, and that hit a whopping 97% during COVID, according to AAA. Translation: A big chunk of the $972 billion Americans spent traveling was on the road.
Meanwhile, the blue highway signs that feature gas and food today generally feed traffic to big gas and food chains. These signs are operated on a state-by-state basis. A big reason you see so many of the same chains promoted is because those companies pay millions of dollars a year for placement. These businesses also have to meet certain criteria that prioritizes chains over small businesses, like being open 24/7.
NewDealDesign’s e-ink signs could easily coexist with the revenue-generating big blue ones, points out Adam Côté, director of strategy design at NewDealDesign. It’s a convincing argument that EV-tourists can do better than settling for blue. For the last several decades, consolidated truck stops made a lot of sense for both travelers and business owners, given the infrastructure of gasoline. Mass amounts of gas could be delivered to these centralized stops (conveniently located right off the expressway!), where fast-food restaurants would build outposts for hungry travelers.
But as Côté explains, the beauty of the electric grid is that it’s decentralized by nature. There’s little to no advantage of centralizing where people charge their cars on this grid. In fact, many rural communities—especially those powered by their own green energy—can have grids that are more stable than those in heavy demand (as we’ve seen in Texas, where a summer energy crisis made big cities like Houston suffer). So not only does that small town have a cute museum to keep you occupied, it also could have its own solar array for topping off your tank with dependable green energy.
While this is now just a concept—and technically, it’s just a sign!—NewDealDesign makes a compelling argument for how one small bit of highway-sign design could make a big impact on small town America. Let’s all go charge up and finally see that big ball of twine!