A fuel card is a payment card for petrol (gasoline), diesel and other fuels at filling stations. Account balances are cleared in full when due and payment terms vary depending on the supplier and can be anything from weekly to monthly. One of the main reasons fuel cards are popular is the elimination of the requirement for cash at filling stations and the perceived increase in security.
In its infancy, fuel cards were only printed with the company name, vehicle registration and a signature strip on the reverse. No electronic data was stored. Fuelling sites would verify the company, vehicle registration (on the forecourt) against the card and also the signature written on the back. The site would allow access to the fuel once the retailer's receipt had been signed for and cross checked against the signature written on the back of the card.
Initially, fuel card networks were very small and based around truck roads and main haulage routes. For example, in 1983, the Keyfuels site network consisted of only seven stations. Therefore, they were initially targeted at haulage or delivery companies. A few years later, cards became embossed rather than printed. This was due to provide the cards with a greater longevity — frequent use would rub off the printed information.
Due to the lack of electronic data on the fuel cards at this stage, transactions would be recorded by the card being 'stamped' onto a manual transaction sheet. Further details detailing date, time, volume, grade of fuel and registration would be hand-written.
During the mid to late 1980s, fuel cards began to use magnetic strip technology. This meant fuel cards could be processed by a retailer electronically and reduced the risk of human error when recording transaction details.
Magnetic strips also enabled fuel card providers to increase fuel card security by ensuring PINs were encoded into the card. Although it should be noted that when the magnetic strip is swiped though a fuel card reader, the transaction is still only verified by checking signatories to this day.
In the advent of outdoor terminals, these PINs became compulsory in order to re-fuel.
The reasoning behind moving from the magnetic strip to smartchip technology was down to the fact that the magnetic strip could be cloned and the data written onto a dummy card. Also, the use of fuel cards was far heavier than that of debit or credit cards, and therefore it became apparent that the magnetic strip began to wear out far quicker.
During 2008, market maturity has led to users increasingly expecting more from fuel cards than discount pricing, with the demand for service, savings and security leading to the appearance of dedicated account management. While most fuel card suppliers handle customer queries via random-operator call centres, customer preference is increasingly for a named individual to handle their business. Respected publication Fleet News reported in July 2008 that more than a quarter of fleet managers are unhappy with the level of service offered by their fuel card supplier.
There are many reasons for/against the use of a fuel card over a credit card, which are outlined below:
Although fuel cards effectively 'look' like credit cards and use very similar technology, their use and implementation is significantly dissimilar enough to differentiate them as an alternate payment method. The main differences from credit cards are:
Depending upon the individual fuel card and the supplier, security benefits of fuel cards can include:
Fuel card providers realised there were many benefits from moving over to the smartcard from the magnetic strip:
As of 2007, only 50% or so of fuel cards on offer utilise the smartchip technology.
Fuelling limits can also be programmed into a fuel card using smartchip technology to specify the following:
Typically, the majority of businesses using fuel cards are those which heavily rely on motor vehicles on a day-to-day basis e.g. transport, haulage, courier services. One of the primary reasons a business will use a fuel card is to obtain (potentially) significant savings both on the current price of fuel and on administrative costs. It would be normal for the business to receive a single weekly invoice, payable by direct debit; this replaces the manual reconciliation of individual paper receipts which could, for larger organisations, number in the hundreds each week. A number of additional benefits are available for users of fuel cards from a supplier offering an e-business capability.
In most cases, fuel cards can provide fuel at a wholesale price as opposed to standard retail. This way, discount fuel can be purchased without needing to buy in bulk.
Furthermore, the management and security concerning fuel purchases is greatly improved via the use of fuel cards. These features often prove themselves attractive to businesses, especially with those operating large fleets which can sometimes be in the thousands of vehicles.
For example, a business may obtain anything from a one to four pence per litre reduction (PPL) on diesel, which in real terms can be translated into the following (UK based) example:
|Fleet Vehicle Size||5|
|Volume Per Fill (litres)||45|
|Fuel Card Saving (PPL)||2.5|
|Total Saving (p/week)||£13.21|
|Total Saving (p/year)||£687.37|
While most fuel cards are for use in a particular country, there are some companies who offer international fuel cards themselves and some via a third party. International site networks often use fully automatic fuel pumps to avoid possible language difficulties and are specially designed to account for different taxation regimes e.g. producing separate invoices for each country which fuel was purchased in a particular month to account for different rates of VAT charged. These site networks sometimes offer the ability to reclaim VAT paid in each country, for a small percentage of the amount reclaimed.
Fuel card providers which operate on a bunkering basis aim to achieve a fuel reserve on a particular network in order to achieve a discounted price, therefore taking advantage of economies of scale.
For example, a company may purchase one million litres of diesel at 72.50 and aim to sell this on to the customer with a mark up of 2.5 pence per litre — 75.00 PPL.
Bunkered fuel card companies sometimes also offer customers their own fuel bunker to under the premise of further benefiting from a discounted price. Furthermore, a customer can also hope to achieve a saving by way of avoiding any market increases in the standard market price for that particular fuel. In short, customer fuel bunkering has many pros & cons:
In contrast to bunkered, retail fuel cards operate by way of allowing the customer to draw fuel at almost any fuelling station (in same method as credit card). Often providers will levy a surcharge in addition to the retail price as advertised at the fuelling station. The retail price given is often considerably higher than that of the bunkered. The majority of fuel cards provide weekly (advance) notification of fuel price generally applicable nationwide.
Although retail is generally more expensive, there are a number of exceptions depending on the region, particular brand/site and timing of fuel purchased. Retail fuel can be cheaper in certain regions, particularly those near to a major port. Further reasons for the difference in price may be due to local economy (e.g. north / south of England) and whether the site is close to any main transport links i.e. the fuel costs more to deliver into the site. As for timing, the supermarkets or large providers often have a great deal of fuel in their stock reserves, so if the market increases rapidly, they would generally take longer than smaller providers to reflect this change.
Fuel cards are not all the same and 'shopping around' is advised. Typically, a supplier will offer just one or two cards. The user should seek an independent supplier offering a range of cards from major brands, so that the most appropriate fuel card for their individual needs can be chosen. A fuel card with little or no motorway coverage but extensive coverage of metropolitan areas, for example, could be of limited use to a national haulier but ideal for a taxi company. A supplier offering only diesel cards will be of minimal appeal to a fleet manager responsible for a petrol-only or mixed-fuel company car fleet.
Furthermore, retail fuel prices have decreased over the past 15 or so years largely due to supermarkets providing fuel at their superstores at hugely discounted prices in order to entice users to the store. Supermarket prices are an irrelevance to many diesel users, as very few supermarket forecourts are accessible by heavy goods vehicles or coaches.