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TECHNOLOGY

Elon Musk Just Announced His Plans for Tesla’s New Charging Stations. This Founder Has Much Bigger Ideas

With Fuel City, John Benda turned gas stations into popular family entertainment centers. He says Musk has an opportunity to take the concept even further.

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BY Leigh Buchanan - 10 Jan 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Elon Musk got his Disney on over the weekend, laying out a vision for Tesla charging stations as entertainment meccas. Months after announcing plans to enhance the stations with upscale convenience stores, Musk tweeted that one Los Angeles location would include "an old school drive-in, roller skates & rock restaurant." One nice touch he mentioned: "an outdoor screen that plays a highlight reel of the best scenes in movie history."

For once Musk isn't breaking new ground. His proof-of concept can be found at Fuel City, a filling-station-cum-family-fun-center, with four locations in the Dallas and Fort Worth areas. (Annual revenues run north of $80 million.) Fuel City's slogan is "Where Dreams Come True." Those dreams include a large convenience store; a car wash; fresh-made tacos enshrined on many "best-of-Dallas" lists; Little Caesars Pizza; a miniature ranch with longhorns, donkeys, camels, and other animals; karaoke; a windmill; a large concrete dinosaur and sasquatch, and a swimming pool.

John Benda, who founded Fuel City 20 years ago, sees enormous potential for Musk's idea. With its upscale clientele, he says, Tesla could position the stations as destinations: places where drivers come to rest and recharge after long days on the road.

Musk gave few details of Tesla's plans, but Benda has plenty of suggestions for how to make the charging stations more useful, entertaining, and lucrative. Like with Fuel City, he imagines them drawing on multiple revenue streams. "He could have a dog park and a food court with national brands and a club venue--even some kind of exotic, futuristic accommodations where people could stay," says Benda, who expects Musk would lease the hotels to an operator. "Fun family games, like horseshoes. If he's going all out he could put in a lake for fishing. Catch and release."

The prospect of incorporating these oases into travel plans would goose Tesla sales, Benda says. And unlike traditional service stations, the facilities "would bring a lot of energy to whatever parts of town they're located."

Benda also recommends setting up a car wash (the Fuel City versions have views of the animals) and a service for getting an auto detailed while it's charging. "Especially a car like a Tesla--people want to keep it nice," he says.

Fuel City specializes in truckers, and Benda urges Musk to offer charging and other services for that market. (Tesla unveiled its first semi in November.) "It takes longer to charge a truck than a car, so you have a captive audience," he says. In addition to food, truckers would want well-designed and -maintained showers and, ideally, a tire store. "Trucking is such a big deal for the future," says Benda. "And a big part of trucking in the future is going to be electric."

Benda suggests Tesla start with around six deluxe stations in California and expand from there. Fuel City locations occupy a minimum of 10 acres: Benda estimates that Tesla would likely want 50 to 100 acres if it created separate areas for trucks and offered amenities like lodging. Each location will also need also plenty of space for circulation so myriad cars and trucks can move around and enter and exit at the same time.

As for Musk's own ideas, Benda says he likes the plan to show movie clips on screens to entertain charging customers. "But I think roller skating is silly."

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