By Judith Durkin. on Dec 1, 2020
When Niall El-Assaad was paralysed from the chest down following a cycling accident, learning to drive again was one of the many goals he set for himself.
“Learning to drive a car with hand controls was relatively straightforward to do,” says Niall. “Trying to get petrol, on the other hand, that’s another story.”
On his first trip in his adapted car, fuel gauge creeping towards zero, El-Assaad found himself driving from station to station near his home in Wigan, northern England, beeping his horn and flashing his lights in an attempt to find someone who would help him refuel his car.
He knew that there had to be a better way. With his background in technology product management, El-Assaad took matters into his own hands.
He reached out to Shell with an idea and together they worked on refining a solution that would make refuelling easier for people with a disability, testing it on a number of Shell service stations across north-west England. The fuelService app was born.
Free to use
The app allows drivers with any disability that makes refuelling difficult to alert petrol stations of their arrival in advance so they can be helped to refuel when they get there.
According to the World Health Organisation, about 15% of the world's population, more than a billion people, live with some form of disability. That means nearly 1 in 6 people face a multitude of challenges daily, including filling up their cars.
Netherlands-based Corinne Jeanmaire is a fuelService user and the Founder and President of the endParalysis foundation, an organisation which supports research aiming to cure spinal cord injury.
“People with disabilities are encouraged to be as independent as possible – that’s great, but not always possible,” she says. “This app gives everyone the option to get help to refuel their car with just a push of a button, making everyone feel welcome. People might not need this service every time, but in any case they are more likely to go to the fuel station that does provide greater help when they need it most. It creates customer loyalty.”
Jeanmaire is now working to expand access to fuelService across Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Luxembourg.
“It’s an app that works best when you have as many stations using it as possible,” she says. “If you have to drive 200 kilometres to actually find a station that can help it’s not very practical.”
Any service station can sign up to offer fuelService at their sites. Shell currently offers the service at more than 2,700 stations across seven countries and this number is increasing.
Part of El-Assaad’s vision for the app was to make a difference beyond helping disabled drivers on the forecourt.
“More often than not services for disabled people are often very expensive,” he says. So fuelService is free to use and any profits, which come from companies who pay to offer the service, go to finding a cure for paralysis.
Jennie Berry, who started the WheelieGoodLife account on Instagram to talk about day-to-day life as a wheelchair user in the UK, also uses the app regularly.
“Before I set off, I check for local stations in the area that offer fuelService,” she says. “I select the station I want to visit, and they get an automated call letting them know I want to refuel. The site will then confirm if they have someone available. When I get there, I type in which pump I’m at and someone comes over to help.”
“The app is a real game changer,” says Berry. “People have suggested to me in the past that I just take someone with me in the car, or plan when I need petrol – but that’s just not realistic and takes away the independence I get from having a car.”
“We also need a greater awareness of the challenges faced by disabled people,” she adds. “I was a full-time wheelchair user for two years before getting into my car and not once did the difficulty of refuelling cross my mind until I had to do it.”
El-Assaad’s aim is to get at least 30% of the service stations in the seven countries where fuelService now operates using the app.
The fuelService app was introduced in Canada around the middle of 2020.
“It’s very easy to manage,” says Sukhpreet Kaur who works at a Shell service station in Vancouver, Canada. “We already have a lot of return customers who use the app because they find it difficult to get out of their cars to refuel. fuelService offers them the assurance that someone is on hand to help them as soon as they arrive on the forecourt.”