A significant change to the way consumers can access petrol price data is gathering pace, with dozens of tech gurus signalling their intentions to develop mobile phone apps to help motorists to find cheap fuel.
From May 20, data collected by the petrol price information service Informed Sources will be publicly available. Under the Informed Sources service, petrol retailers currently exchange site-by-site petrol prices covering most of Australia every 15 or 30 minutes.
In December last year, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and Informed Sources clients BP, Caltex, Woolworths and 7-Eleven reached an agreement to make the data freely available to the public to improve transparency.
Informed Sources Managing Director Alan Cadd told the ABC motorists would have access to price data that was more accurate than the twice-daily updates currently available through the Motormouth website.
“The best thing is now you’ll be able to look at hey, I’m in South Melbourne, hey I’m in Punchbowl, where’s the cheapest site around me?” Mr Cadd said.
“That will mean pricing data for the rural areas as well as the capital cities.”
Similar price systems for consumers are already operating in countries such as Germany, France and Spain.
So far, 30 software developers have registered their interest in getting hold of the data from Informed Sources to feed into an app or website.
“In Germany, there are 120 apps in this space, so we’re expecting there to be everything from large corporates, large media, right the way through to public interest groups, motoring organisations, NRMA, RACV, RACQ will be there,” Mr Cadd said.
The NRMA said it already provided a form of price monitoring on its website, but said it was a “game changer” that information would now be provided in real time.
Spokesman Peter Khoury told the ABC that although it was early days, the motoring organisation was taking a strong interest in enhancing its ability to provide information its members need to save money at the bowser.
Industry under pressure over prices
Petrol retailers have copped heavy criticism again this week, with the ACCC’s fifth quarterly report finding that retail margins were still too high at the bowser.
ACCC chairman Rod Sims said motorists were not fully benefiting from low crude oil prices.
“Retail petrol prices were not as low as might have been expected given the level of crude oil prices,” Mr Sims said.
Mr Cadd said there were more issues at stake than just the price of crude and the exchange rate.
“If you look in NSW alone you have the price board initiative, you have the vapour recovery initiatives, these are all costs that resellers have to build into their margins,” he said.
“The interesting thing is past May 20, we’ll be much more aware of it.”
Mr Cadd said the question of whether the newly available data would help bring down prices was a “curly one”.
“Whether it will act a downward pressure on the price of petrol long term, we have to wait and see. Still the big kickers in that area are what’s the price of crude, what’s the Australian dollar-US dollar exchange rate? But will that actually act a downward pressure? I believe so,” he said.
There may be limits on access to data
A key issue facing Informed Sources is how it will continue to charge petrol retailers to access pricing information when the public will be able to access it for free.
In other countries, the Government pays to maintain the system, but that will not happen in Australia.
“Australia will be the first country in the world where this data will travel through to the motorist and the data processing is being paid for by the oil companies. That means that’s good news for the public purse, but that also puts responsibility on us that the data won’t flow out there in an uncontrolled way,” Mr Cadd said.
This means individual profiles will be set up for users, and there may be limits to how many times per week a consumer can access prices.
“You can imagine the four subscribing oil companies would take a dim view if that data was freely available out there for their competitors or non-subscribers to have free access, so it’s a balancing act, we have to be able to pay for all of the programmers and therefore we need to control how this data gets out there,” he said.
“A motorist will say ‘OK, today’s the day I want to buy’ and make a decision, and then that’s it for probably five or six days a week.”