Demolished Kileleshwa fuel station a bad omen for petrol industry

Tuesday August 14 2018

The demolition of a Shell petrol station in Kileleshwa on Monday was an ominous sign for the petrol industry, whose products have been central to motorcars for over a century.

In the West and other developed markets, there is a lot of discussion about electric cars, and especially the Tesla models, with stories on its manufacturing challenges, glitches, cars catching fire and about its iconic CEO Elon Musk, who tweets as personally as Donald Trump about his projects and ambitions.

And while it may appear that an electric car future is a "first world" issue, far removed from Kenya's potholed roads and jua kali garages, a change from petrol is sure to come, and sooner than we may think.

It will certainly come here before self-driving cars, and people-carrying drones that attract as much attention.


The first petrol engine was introduced in the 1880s when Otto, Daimler and Maybach patented the compression engine and later Karl Benz designed and built his own four-stroke engine that was used in his automobile.


While there is more efficiency in petrol engines today, delivered through electronic fuel injection, turbochargers and smaller engines, this is still is based on 100-year-old technology.

The engine is only one part of a motorcar, and cars have evolved greatly over the years. I started driving using a Peugeot 504 in the 1990s and I recollect some of the features of those cars that have now been eliminated from some newer car models.

These include things like manual gears, tube tyres, ignition keys, carburettors, ashtrays, cigarette lighters, long antennas that would be pulled up manually, dip sticks, spare tyres, mud flaps, and hub caps.


They have been replaced by features such as push-start buttons, reverse cameras, headlights and wipers that turn on automatically depending on the weather or time of day, windows that roll up and close when you lock your car, and heated seats that also massage occupants.

And many more are coming. In 2001, BMW introduced the iDrive, one single button that replaced dozens of other control settings on car dashboards.

It was initially reviled but has now been adopted as a modern-car standard that has been emulated by other manufacturers.

Soon some cars will hoot if you forget a pet or child in the back seat – a manufacturer's response to the average of 37 American children who die every year of heat stroke in cars.


This week, Tesla said it is developing a new processor chip that was 10 times more powerful than current ones. Interestingly, the chips are backwards compatible, which means that their benefits of faster processing can also be delivered to existing car owners, and this is not the first time Tesla has done this.

In the US hurricane season last year, Tesla enabled a software unlock to give more range to their batteries, thus enabling Tesla car owners to drive them further and escape the reach of a hurricane.

So, as car features have evolved, so too will their engines, and there will come a day when there will not be new petrol stations.

The demolished Kileleshwa station had been cited by Vivo Energy as being a "high volume site" that generated 18 per cent of its gross profit from the convenience shop and Java House restaurant.


With time, more station owners will realise that it may be more beneficial to provide food, medicine, and other ancillary services rather than sell price-controlled petrol products.

The future "petrol station" at Kileleshwa might be a restaurant where people meet and have a meal, or a meeting, as their cars are charged in the parking lot and also have their diagnostic electronics checked and software upgrades installed. 


Finally, this weekend saw the launch, at Two Rivers Mall, of Nopia Ride an all-electric taxi company in Nairobi.

The Finland-backed company, which hopes to have a few hundred cars in Nairobi by year's end, says electric cars will be cheaper to operate by 30-50 per cent compared with petrol cars and this will enable cheaper fares for riders who download the firms' app, book rides and pay via M-Pesa.