Half gallon, liters: confusion at gas pump

Confusion in inevitable at gasoline pumps this year as oil companies wrestle with new ways to price their $1-plus-a-gallon gasoline. It's possible that, in the very near future, a motorist in search of gasoline could drive up to an intersection with three service stations on the corners and find the gasoline priced a different way at each one: station A -- 109 cents a gallon; station B -- 53 cents a half-gallon; station C -- 29.9 cents a liter.m

Which is cheapest?

Anyone can multiply 53 cents times tww and know that Station B is cheaper than station A, but what do you do with one of those newfangled liters? Knowing that there are 3.7854 liters in a gallon doesn't do much for the average driver without a pocket calculator.

But liters may be the answer for oil companies as they search of the cheapest way to convert their gas pumps to adjust to $1-a- gallon gasoline.

Marking the price by half gallons is clearly a temporary answer, oil company and service station association spokesmen agree.All those stickers on gas pumps telling people to multiply the price on the pump by two are confusing, and the gasoline- buying public apparently is already fed up with it.

Everybody knows what a gallon is. They know how far a car can run on one. And, all things being equal, Americans doubtless would prefer to keep buying their gasoline in gallons -- but few know what a liter is.

But they probably are going to have to learn, and here's why:

Converting a gasoline pump to measure the price at more than $1 a gallon costs about $250, according to the Allied Gasoline Retailers Association, but changing a pump to measure the price in liters runs between $15 and $50.

That's because to convert to liters requires only that a new gear box be placed inside the pump, while the conversion to $1- plus per gallon needs all kinds of new equipment.

Since the federal government has been after Americans to change to metric measures for years, many gasoline companies think now may be the perfect time for them to make the switch to liters. But will the public buy it?

"We'd have to have a tremendous public education program to tell people exactly what they are getting," says Jim Miller, a spokesman for the American Gasoline Retailers Association. "People will try to make the conversions in their heads, make mistakes, and think they are being ripped off."

Recently, at a service station in Tampa where the conversion to liters had already been made, assistant manager Joseph James was trying to explain the difference to a customer who had just driven up in a red, 1966 Cadillac.

"What's the price on the pump?" The man asked.

"That's 29.9 cents a liter," Mr. Joseph explained. "Just multiply that price by 3.78, and you get the price per gallon, which is $1.13."

"I don't care, just give me $10 worth," the driver said. "I've seen that metric stuff before, but I never got wrapped up in it. I just try to figure out how much the price is. It's like that kilowatts stuff."

Kilowatt?

"Sure, I was up in Canada, and all the miles on the streets have been changed to kilowatts," he said. "It's hard to figure how far anything is.Why can't they do anything in the American language?"

Knowing the difference between kilowatts and kilometers can be difficult, but most people driving into Mr. Joseph's station were buying their gas in liters without much complaint.

A number of big oil companies are trying to decide whether to go to liters or keep the gallons. Texaco and Chevron both have studies under way, but Shell is changing to metric as quickly as it can get the mechanisms for the pumps.

But one thing is certain, said Jim Miller of the Gasoline Retailers Association: The customer is going to be confused until everyone decides on one standard.

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