Gas Prices Rise

As gas prices continue to rise — they reach as high as $4.59 in Manhattan — drivers around the United States are turning to their mobile phones to find cheaper prices. The trend is so noticeable, in fact, that AT&T has noticed that the amount of downloads for its YP app, which includes a gas price search function, have grown exponentially. I recently spoke with Rohan Chandran, AT&T’s Interactive Executive Director of Mobile Products about AT&T’s smartphone applications, specifically YP, and how subscribers are using it more than ever for savings.

First, a little history on YP: the application was born out of the legacy Yellow Pages book – something you might remember being dropped on your door as a kid (or still today, if you’re stuck in the middle ages.). “We took a great directory service and made it much more than that,” Chandran said, noting that AT&T is looking to use YP to shake up the local search space over the next 12-18 months.

Most noticeably, the company is already seeing the app used first for restaurant searches and, more recently, to find lower gas prices. A user simply needs to open the gas price search application and YP automatically determines the gas stations in the immediate area with the lowest prices. Gas stations labeled in green offer the most savings.

“Gas prices are a great example of where we’ve had sucesss in attacking local search,” Chandran explained, noting that AT&T has partnered with Opus for its search results. “We launched our gas prices solution in late August/early September of last year and it’s a huge hit.” So huge, in fact, that Chandran says drivers use YP to conduct more than 1 million gas price searches per month. Depending on a user’s location, AT&T estimates that drivers are saving about $400 per year using YP.

“We saw a significant uptick in downloads of the app in general, presumably for people looking for gas price apps,” Chandran said. “It’s very clear that people are looking for that help right now for gas prices because prices have reached the point where the extra nickle or dime per gallon can add up for everybody. It’s huge coming into the summer travel season and spring break right now. People on budgets deriving around and come Memorial Day and beyond we have a whole lot of driving going on and gas prices are continuing to rise.”

Gas Prices Rise 2

So what’s next for YP? Chandran didn’t say specifically, but he did discuss the industry as a whole and where YP could expand on its gas search functions. YP will try to address the difference between drivers commuting to and from every work and those who are driving several hundred miles for vacation and figure out where the best gas prices are, even if the need for a fill-up isn’t immediate. Drivers may also be interested in more automative features, such as where the cheapest oil change or car washes are. “Local search goes beyond gas prices — a big usecase is the auto vertical in general,” Chandran said. “The expansion and extenison of that is definitely critical.”

I asked if YP has considered offering savings for different gas stations if a user drives up and proves they’re using the YP app — something similar to what FourSquare offers for check-ins at specific destinations.  Chandran didn’t confirm or deny that YP might be considering the idea. “Fundamentally we have coupons that you can redeem on a mobile basis,” he explained. “It stands to reason that categories like gas stations could work well and we have infrastructure in place.”

Chandran’s goal for YP is to disrupt the local search space in general, and to better compete against FourSquare, Yelp and Google by trying to figure out what the consumer wants as fast as possible. “If you can pick up the YP app and think “this is what I need to get” and we can answer the question before you need it, we’ve helped clear the question out of your mind. If we can do that in every category we can disrupt the local search and discovery space in general.”

YP is available for free for most devices, including iOS, Android, webOS, Windows Phone and BlackBerry smartphones. If you’re looking for an alternative, you may also want to consider some other cheap gas apps such as GasBuddy (4.5 stars after 293,000 downloads in the Android market), Clevertanken or WhatGas. Hopefully you’ll save some money filling the tank this summer, no matter what you choose.