New Products: A Slow Introduction

So far, the market for EV lubes and fluids has lagged behind the growth of the vehicles themselves, both in terms of products available and – according to automakers – their use. Until 2018, it was difficult to identify lubes or fluids that were made specifically for EVs, but a number of companies launched products during 2018 and 2019, including Total, Fuchs Petrolub, Shell, Petronas, ExxonMobil, Valvoline and Motul. Types of products varied from company to company, but among those introduced were:

  • lubricants for electric motors in PHEVs that integrate the motor with the gearbox housing;
  • engine oils for mild hybrids and for PHEVs with e-motors that are not integrated;
  • lubricants for reducer gears in BEVs;
  • multifunctional products that lubricate reducer gears and e-motors while also serving as coolants for batteries and other components;
  • coolants specifically for batteries;
  • greases specifically for EVs.

Lubricant marketers described all of their products as meeting performance needs specific to EVs. Many of the products were said to be compatible with high electrical currents, copper windings and other materials used in EVs. Battery coolants were said to have the ability to transfer high amounts of heat while also providing electrical properties and protecting against fire. 

Fluids for integrated hybrid motors must serve dual roles – lubricating roller bearings that move at very high speeds and providing a high degree of heat exchange, while also providing lubrication and friction performance for the transmission. Lubes for reducer gears must lubricate parts that can reach speeds of 15,000 revolutions per minute, which requires superior anti-foaming and air-release properties, which must be sustained for the service life of the fluid.

Multipurpose BEV fluids must provide that same performance for reducer gears while also lubricating an e-motor and cooling a battery and power unit.

Officials from several automakers, however, expressed ambivalence about the value of such products in the marketplace, saying that their companies were lubricating EVs with conventional products developed for ICE vehicles, and an industry consultant agreed that that is largely the current practice.

An official from Ford Motor Co. said automakers do want products developed specifically for EVs but that they expect them to be design or performance enablers. “It will come down to whether they can enable performance,” said Arup Gangopadhyay, technology leader for lubrication science and mechanical friction in the company’s base engine department. “For example, when they can demonstrate enough heat dissipation performance to allow a smaller gearbox, then we will use that product.”

Meanwhile, insiders at several oil lube marketers insisted that their EV products are being used for factory fill by EV automakers. An employee of Total speculated that those speaking to Lubes’n’Greases on behalf of original equipment manufacturers were referring mostly to fluids that lubricate reducers in BEVs or gearboxes in PHEVs.

“I can imagine that these OEMs are referring to transmission fluids only,” said Francois-Jacques Benard, prospective and innovation manager at Total Lubricants. “Such transmissions can accept standard transmission fluids. But when the transmission fluid is also used to cool the e-engine, there is a need to bring additional performance to the fluid: resistivity, thermal stability, heat capacity, compatibility with wire coating and with copper.”

Benard acknowledged that relatively low numbers of PHEVs have e-motors integrated in the gearbox housing, but he predicted that this design will gain popularity. “Specific EV fluids offer added value for a small part of the current car park, but our EV range is mainly dedicated to future needs in EVs when the OEMs will deploy optimized powertrains requiring multipurpose fluids.”

Likewise, Benard said EV manufacturers are generally not designing vehicles with direct cooling systems requiring battery coolants for thermal management of batteries and electronics. At the moment, therefore, there is not much need for such products, but he speculated that automakers may employ such designs in the future. 

Lube marketers expressed confidence that EVs now under development will have more distinct performance demands than ICE vehicles and clearer needs for lubricants and other fluids developed specifically for them.

“We expect for the next generation of EV drivetrains an increasing number of dedicated EV fluids in mass production applications,” said Bernhard Hagemann, head of e-mobility activities at Fuchs.

Shell and a number of other lubricant marketers have introduced lubes and fluids designed specifically for EVs. These products are being supplied primarily for factory fill. Photo courtesy of Shell

Industry sources predicted that more oil companies will introduce EV products, especially as vehicle numbers continue to rise, but some thought that not all will be actively marketed. In the words of one consultant, some companies just want to have the appearance of being in the EV segment.

Patrick Carre, Shell’s vice president for global accounts and businesses, predicted that development of EV lubes and fluids will be quite fragmented – much more so than development of automotive engine oils. “It is worth noting that in the e-mobility industry, there is far less brand-to-brand uniformity across hybrid and EV powertrains than there is in conventional vehicles,” he said. “In fact, electric motor design is unique to each OEM – for example, the insulation material, winding technology, rotor-stator setup – which makes engineering fluids for hybrids and EVs that much more challenging.”

That fragmentation could be at least partially controlled if the industry develops performance specifications for these new categories of lubricants and fluids. Industry insiders agree on the need for specifications, as well as standardized test methods. A number of organizations around the world have begun development programs, including ASTM, the International Organization for Standardization, the Coordinating European Council for the Development of Performance Tests for Fuels, Lubricants and Other Fluids, the German Institute for Standardization, the Society for Tribologists and Lubrication Engineers and others. Those programs are mostly in their early stages.

Lube marketers agreed that nearly all of the EV lubes and fluids being supplied today are going to vehicle manufacturing plants for first fill installation – a fact that avoids the need to market in other sales channels as they do with conventional lubricants.

“Most of these fluids may have long drain intervals – perhaps five years or more – so at least for a few years the market will remain focused on factory fill, with aftermarket volumes increasing as a function of drain intervals,” Total’s Benard said.

For now, the market is geographically polarized, with a majority of consumption taking place in the small number of countries where most EVs are manufactured. Sources said that this polarization could diminish after EVs achieve price parity with ICE vehicles.

“Obviously, the uptake and adoption rates won’t be the same in all countries,” BNEF’s O’Donovan said. “But price parity will come to those countries [with slow adoption rates] as well. In any case, marketers said it is not a significant problem for them to simultaneously serve territories that have large demand for EV lubes and others that do not; they already deal with other differences between markets.