Will We Return to Individual Oils for Vehicles?

June 1, 2018
About 50 years ago, the motor oil business was based on individual OEM requirements. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler had special tests they required in addition to what was then known as the MS tests. It made for additional complexity in supplying oil to dealers and do-it-yourselfers. That’s when API devised the forerunner to the current system, which sets a category based on what the OEMs and oil marketers can work out through discussions and test development.

About 50 years ago, the motor oil business was based on individual OEM requirements. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler had special tests they required in addition to what was then known as the MS tests. It made for additional complexity in supplying oil to dealers and do-it-yourselfers. That’s when API devised the forerunner to the current system, which sets a category based on what the OEMs and oil marketers can work out through discussions and test development. In 1992, a further modification to the process was developed and is what we now follow.

The process is documented in API 1509, Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System. There are flow charts and detailed descriptions of the steps, but it really boils down to this: The need for a new category is determined, tests are developed and a draft specification is proposed. Everyone in the industry reviews and comments on the proposal. The category is defined, and all of the oil marketers and additive suppliers develop products to meet the new category.

There is a lot of effort that goes into getting to the finish line, and a lot of trips and stumbles can occur. Among the problems are tests that refuse to cooperate (Sequence IVB wear test), tests that are needed sooner than category is ready (Sequence IX low speed pre-ignition) or a lack of base oil interchange and viscosity grade readacross guidelines. Any or all of these types of problems delay the introduction of new categories.

One of the biggest delays has been with API SP (aka GF-6). This was first proposed in 2012 with a target of 2017 introduction. However, due to test development delays and the necessity of developing seven new tests, we are now expecting that 2020 will be the introduction date. In the meantime, a new category known as API SN PLUS has been introduced. It is the result of the OEMs expressed need to address pre-ignition problems with their new turbocharged, gasoline fueled, direct injection (TGDI) engines.

Currently, GM has their own specification that they recommend for their vehicles. According to GM, “Oils meeting the dexos1 specification exhibit enhanced performance compared to many oils on the market today. In fact, the dexos1 specification is made up of a combination of some of the most demanding tests found in industry specifications such as those from API (American Petroleum Institute) and ACEA (European Automobile Manufacturers Association).”

Dexos has improved oxidation and wear resistance, as well as improved deposit control versus current oils. It has also improved volatility and low temperature pumpability. Many of these improvements are a part of GF-6, but GM is already working on the next dexos generation. It’s become a game of leapfrog.

Ford has a specification for their light duty diesels. This is ESE M2C171, and it is actually a throwback to higher levels of antiwear due to problems they are having with valve train wear. As test work continues, Ford will establish API CK-4 as an acceptable oil. Currently, CK-4/SN oils have lower than required phosphorus (the active antiwear agent) than Ford feels is required.

Of course, there are a number of European vehicles that require a specific oil. Daimler-Benz, Volkswagen and Audi are three that come to mind. In Japan, the major manufacturers recommend what they call “Genuine” oils, but they do allow the use of API’s latest category, at least for now. So, where is this all headed? How might it affect fast oil change stores or independent garages? There’s a lot to ponder here and maybe some potential opportunities.

The next 20 years will be very hectic and crowded with change. Engine design has come a long way but is still in the throes of significant change. Even with the recent relaxation of fuel economy requirements, the push for fuel saving engine designs continues. The OEMs have invested a lot of time and money in making their engines more economical and with reduced emissions.

Currently, the turbocharged, gasoline fueled, direct injection (TGDI) engine is becoming the king of the hill. It offers great fuel economy and performance in a very small package. These engines do have some unique lubricant requirements including extra oxidation and wear protection for the turbo as well as extra deposit control additives to reduce low speed pre-ignition (LSPI). There are claims that such engines offer thermal efficiencies of up to 56 percent. Diesel fueled engines offer more efficient operation than conventional fuel injected gasoline engines. The penalty for diesel engines is added weight.

Mazda has introduced an innovative design based on homogenous charge, compression ignition (HCCI) technology. According to Mazda press releases, “…HCCI engines combine a diesel's torque and fuel efficiency with a gasoline engine's cleaner emissions… There have been many hurdles to jump, including getting the timing, temperature and mixture right, but Mazda thinks it has done just that with its new Skyactiv-X four cylinder.”

Mazda goes on to point out that, “With ordinary spark ignition combustion, average engines use an air/fuel ratio of about 14.7:1. With lean spark ignition combustion, the ratio can go up to 29.4:1, but the flame won’t propagate. Combustion ignition enables a super lean burn at twice the ideal air/fuel ratio. Mazda saw 36.8:1. Even lean air/fuel mixtures will ignite and burn if highly compressed.

Lean combustion is what makes for efficiency. That makes sense. Less fuel in the same amount of air means less fuel burned. Lean burn also reduces combustion temperatures, which reduces heat transfer and cooling loss. It also increases the amount of air for a given level of torque, reducing loss from throttle closure, called pumping loss.

There are other possibilities in the engine design arena. The all-electric vehicle is available now from Tesla. While it has a lot of features, the lack of sufficient range is a drawback. This will be solved with new battery designs, but it obviously won’t need engine oil. There are other lubricant applications such as hydraulic fluids that will partially offset the loss of engine oil. At its current cost, these vehicles won’t make much of a dent in the market.

An old application is using natural gas fuel. Currently, there are conversion kits available to make this change. Natural gas and hydrogen are being proposed as fuel for fuel cells that would offer some of the advantages of electric as well as using a gaseous fuel to operate. Further out, and not really in the picture as yet, solar powered vehicles could become a part of the engine mix.

Meanwhile, engine oils are changing as well. Engine oil specifications are calling for more deposit control (LSPI) and better wear protection (TDGI), as well as improved fuel economy and reduced emissions. API SN (GF-5) has already morphed into API SN PLUS, and GF-6 may finally make it into the market by mid-2020. Last year the industry was talking about GF-7 as though it were already on the drawing board. With the recent EPA relaxation on fuel economy, it may take a little longer but it will happen. In addition, California may decide to continue with their extreme fuel economy and emissions goals. Given that perhaps as much as 20 percent of the automobile and light duty truck market may reside in the Golden State, it may drive OEMs to build for that market.

The question of viscosity grades may also impact oil marketeering. Sales by viscosity grade will change pretty substantially between now and 2027.

It seems pretty apparent that the OEMs have differing ideas about which viscosity grade they prefer. SAE 5W-20 has become an important part of the engine oil viscosity mix. Certainly SAE 0W-XX has also moved into a prominent place in oil marketing. These two categories have been on the rise as a result of the fuel economy drive; although they’re not critical, they will still be important. The OEMs have changed their engine designs to accommodate low viscosity oils through the use of low tension rings and other design advances. The Japanese auto industry is working on a new specification for engine oils that will include SAE 0W-8. They will gain fuel economy without significantly sacrificing engine durability. This new specification is supposed to be available in 2019.

Many of these changes are the result of new base oils. The old, solvent refined oils just don’t cut it when it comes to new finished oil specifications. Hydrotreated and hydrocracked base oils are now required to meet improved stability, volatility and oxidation needs. The oil industry has been turning base oil production to these improved products. Meanwhile, synthetics such as PAO and others have carved out a niche of their own and are well established in the marketplace.

When you look at the changes in engine design and engine oil appetites, it looks more and more like there will be multiple oil specifications to meet all customers. That presents an inventory dilemma that installers will have to address. Logistically, it is doubtful that anyone can meet all customers’ needs. It will become an 80/20 proposition: select a minimum number of oils to meet 80 percent of your customers. It also calls for some sort of local warehousing for the less widely used oils to meet that customer’s needs. All challenges for the industry.

About the Author

Steve Swedberg

STEVE SWEDBERG has over 50 years of experience in the oil industry. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry and graduate work in business administration. He also has extensive training in petroleum products technical service as well as total quality management. His work experience includes lubricants research and development with ARCO and UNOCAL, oil additive marketing at Edwin Cooper (now Afton) and Chevron Oronite and lubricants marketing with Pennzoil. He managed technical groups related to oil marketing, product quality and technical services. Swedberg has also been involved with several industry organizations including STLE, NLGI, ASTM and, most notably, SAE, where he was Technical Committee 1 (Engine Oils) chairman from 1992 to 1996. While in that position, he was able to help influence industry direction as well as make many valuable industry contacts. Swedberg is currently consulting on lubricating products and additives and is a technical writer.