Like so many people juggling a career, a commute and unexpected day-to-day chores, Whitney Block’s life unfurls in a perpetual state of semi-controlled chaos.
To ensure that her weeks run smoothly, Block, an avid planner, has turned to technology, using AmazonFresh and Google Express to stock her fridge and order products ranging from toilet paper to electronics. She can’t remember the last time she pushed a shopping cart through a store.
Until a few months ago, there remained a single irritating chore that Block couldn’t seem to avoid: filling her car up with gas.
Her solution: a Silicon Valley start-up that functions like a mobile gas station, using “field technicians” to fill up vehicles when they’re not being driven. The company, known as Yoshi, is part of a crop of gas-delivery start-ups billing themselves as “Uber for gasoline.” Yoshi members pay a $20 monthly subscription fee, plus the cost of gas, a deal that Block — who considers gas stations dirty and inconvenient — said she couldn’t resist.
“The more demanding my career has become, the more I’ve realized I don’t want my free time to be consumed by mundane tasks that I don’t want to be doing — and that includes going to the gas station to fill up,” she said.
“It’s not fun, it’s not stimulating and it’s not enjoyable,” she added. “If I can pay somebody to get it done for me, I will totally do that.”
For many drivers, a trip to the gas station is a forgettable inconvenience that occurs once or twice a week. But Yoshi is banking on the idea that there are millions of people like Block all over the country: urban professionals whose demanding schedules and disposable income make them ideal candidates for outsourcing a chore that has been a feature of car ownership since the inception of the automobile.
The company seeks to be more than a concierge service for the affluent, and it arrives at a time when companies such as Uber, Amazon.com, Whole Foods (now owned by Amazon) and Netflix are trying to capitalize on the appeal of convenience. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
In the past 12 months, the company has spread from three cities nationwide to 16, including Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Houston and Los Angeles, picking up investments from superstar athletes Kevin Durant and Joe Montana along the way. They’ve recently added the Washington D.C. region to that list.
Yoshi, which competes with other gas-delivery start-ups on the West Coast, has to convince potential customers that the subscription is worthwhile, particularly in cities with ample public transit.
The company declined to say how many people use the service across the country.
Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of inexperienced start-ups lugging around tanks of flammable liquid, though Yoshi claims their fuel tanks — which are small enough to fit in the back of the company’s delivery fleet of GM pickup trucks — conform to local laws and are certified by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“Some of the [companies] are using 1,000-gallon tanks,” Greg Andersen, a division chief in the California state fire marshal’s office, told the Guardian newspaper. “If they’re going into the basement parking lot of a high-rise, that actually is a large concern.”
Yoshi field technicians deliver gas to parking garages and high-rise buildings when necessary. The company says its field techs are hazmat-certified and have not had a single spill in three years of operation.
The automotive industry has taken notice. The rise of ride-hailing and car-sharing is prompting a fundamental reevaluation of vehicle ownership among consumers, experts say, a shift that is forcing auto companies to make concessions to their drivers. Some of those concessions — such as providing round-the-clock, concierge-style maintenance — look a lot like Yoshi.
“Convenience is becoming a lifestyle,” said Alistair Weaver, editor in chief at the automotive website Edmunds.com.
Cities remain clogged with cars, but gas stations are becoming harder to find. Between 1994 and 2015, the number of retail fueling sites in the United States dropped about 25 percent — from 202,800 to about 150,000, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores.
To sweeten the deal for customers, Yoshi has begun offering customers other gas station staples, such as oil changes, tire checks, car washings and brake pad replacements. Using the company’s app customers interact with field technicians and an artificial intelligence bot named “Rachel,” which helps them schedule services.
Field technicians service most vehicles during the workday, in parking lots and driveways, and communicate with customers via smartphone. They carry a tool that allows them to open fuel tank flaps even when they’re locked.
“Every time a field technician fills up a vehicle, we have them take pictures so you know if there’s a dent in your bumper or a scratch on the vehicle,” Yoshi co-founder Bryan Frist said.
“If we notice your passenger side wiper blade is broken, then you’d get an email and a push notification on your phone, and with one button, you could schedule to get it replaced.”
Yoshi — which plans to expand to nine more cities by the end of the year — received a recent investment from ExxonMobil, the oil giant’s first-ever start-up investment. A partnership with Firestone connects customers in need of a tire with the tire company’s Mobile Tire Installation service. General Motors has also invested in Yoshi, including Yoshi services in GM’s OnStar package in a number of cities.
At a time when Silicon Valley is rushing to replace gas-powered engines with electric motors and batteries, selling combustible fuel might appear to be a foolish way to launch a career. But the 31-year-old Frist — who founded the company with two partners in 2015 — said his team looked for industries that remained largely untouched by innovation. The outdated nature of the gas station, he said, was part of the business’s allure.
Instead of seeing gas stations as a quick way to fuel a vehicle, Frist’s team saw an unnecessary speed bump in the fuel-delivery model — an inconvenience exacerbated by lines, fluctuating prices and inclement weather.
“Gas stations haven’t really changed in the last 100 years,” he said. “If you go look at old black-and-white photos, you’re looking at essentially the same concept as today.”
He added, “Go to a gas station in the middle of the winter, when it’s sleeting, and ask yourself how convenient it is.”
As ride-hailing and ride-sharing make owning a car useless for some, Weaver said, there is a push within the auto industry to remove the “pain points” from the car-ownership experience.
The result has been a new crop of subscription services that give luxury car owners the ability to rotate through different models. Care by Volvo provides Volvo owners with insurance, maintenance and concierge service — a model, Weaver said, that has parallels to Yoshi.
“People are generally looking — across the board — for more convenient solutions for their hectic lives, whether it’s Amazon delivering stuff directly to our homes or shopping online,” Weaver said. “It’s logical that these things would extend to motoring for people who are time-poor and cash-rich.”
Yoshi claims its services actually save drivers money over time, about $240 a year on average. The claim is based on the idea that — using corporate partnerships — Yoshi is able to deliver gas at a price slightly below the local average. Customers who add an oil change get a dollar per gallon subtracted from the bill. Customers who have a car detailed (thoroughly cleaned) receive a free tank of gas, the company says.
For customers like Block, paying a few dollars extra each month for gas is a fair trade for convenience. But Weaver said potential customers should approach subscription services — which can seduce customers into excess spending — very carefully.
“My suggestion to consumers is to read the small print carefully and really calculate the true cost,” he said. “If you’re going to subscribe you need to make it work for you, because otherwise it becomes that gym membership that you sign up for an never use.”
He added, “We’ve all been there.”