Yesterday on my way to work I stopped at the Cumberland Farms gas station down the street from our offices in Richmond Vermont for a fill up. "Cumby's" offers the usual assortment of gas station burritos, egg salad sandwiches and the cheapest gas in town. Nothing particularly high tech or innovative about the store, product assortment or presentation. On this particular day, however, I noticed an placard promoting "Smart Pay" on the gas pump. The announcement was an invitation to install the Cumberland Farms SmartPay app on an android or iPhone device and save $0.10/gallon on fuel purchases.
Vermont traditionally has higher than average gas prices - so any opportunity to save a few cents on gas is a pretty good incentive to install a free app - so onto my phone went the SmartPay app.
What happened next was (even for a technophile like me) pretty amazing.
After starting up the SmartPay app - the app used the iPhone's GPS function to determine which store I was currently visiting and prompted me to enter the store and pump numerical ID.
Entering these numbers along with my PayPal credentials turned on the pump in a few seconds and I filled my tank as usual.
After completing the sale - the SmartPay app determined that I was done and displayed the total spend for gas along with my savings.
So what happened behind the scenes to make this transaction possible?
My paypal account has a balance that consists of funds from multiple countries that originated in several currencies - most recently Australian Dollars. Paypal automatically converts incoming funds into American dollars - making a paypal account a sort of universal translator. This in and of itself is pretty amazing.
Next, the phone needed GPS functionality to determine the proximate store. GPS satellites are roughly 12,000 miles away so my pocket sized iPhone using a chip the size of my fingernail needed to not only receive the GPS signal from multiple satellites, but process it to determine my location within a few feet.
After that, the iPhone app needed to establish communication with the store's gas pump - requiring the pump to be networked, which required the store to be networked and so on.
Of course, the whole process required a hand held device that was useful enough to be always with me (the iPhone).
Effective technology tends to be transparent to the end user - this was no exception - allowing me to simply pay for gas, save a few cents and drive off.
Tomorrow I'll put this app to work buying an excellent gas station burrito.