API SM: Shorthand for Still Marooned?


On March 18 the American Petroleum Institutes Lubricants Committee met in Baltimore to discuss its proposed new gasoline engine oil service category, API SM. SM is needed as a global companion to the ILSAC GF-4 engine oil specification, which U.S. and Japanese automakers approved in mid-January.

The Baltimore meeting showed, however, that SM remains marooned between two core philosophical issues – equivalency versus flexibility – and debate between these opposing concepts remains sharp.

Equivalency, favored by vehicle manufacturers, would continue the pattern of having API categories maintain the same test limits and requirements as the accompanying ILSAC GF series, except for fuel economy. Flexibility, favored by the oil companies, would break this link, primarily by allowing SM oils to have less restrictive limits for phosphorus and sulfur than GF-4.

Ellen Shapiro, representing the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, confirmed her groups continued desire for equivalency. She pointed to a March 5 letter from ILSAC Chairman Mike McMillan of General Motors which states, We are particularly concerned about the differences which the current SM ballot would allow for the ILSAC viscosity grades – differences which have not been permitted for previous API S categories.

By contrast, a majority of the Lubricants Committee seems to favor the flexibility of allowing some SM oils to have higher phosphorus content or break the mold in other ways. It sent committee members a very complicated and detailed letter ballot on SMs technical limits and options on Feb. 24 (described in the Feb. 18 Lube Report). Due date for return of the ballot is April 9, after which the committee will meet via a conference call, on April 16, and in person in the Cincinnati area on May 4.

ILSAC would like GF-4 licensing to begin in July. APIs Lubricants Committee will decide on initial licensing dates for both GF-4 and SM after the close of the ballot on April 9. It seems certain, then, that the time between final approval of SM and first licensing of the new oils will be drastically short.

Too Many Donuts?

API’s donut trademark, in existence for more than two decades, was also discussed at the Baltimore meeting. This service mark is used by oil marketers to show the API Service Category (API SL, currently) in the top half of two concentric circles. In the bottom half, the words Energy Conserving can be used, while the center (the donut hole) is reserved for the oil’s viscosity grade, such as SAE 5W-30 or SAE 10W-40.

Now a new donut has been proposed, as an SM component. The donut’s center would still show the SAE viscosity grade, but the outer ring would be split into thirds. The top third would indicate the API Service Category; the lower-right third can display the words Energy Conserving, and the lower-left third can display the emissions system effect of the oil.

Two phrases under consideration to show the products emissions impact are Emission System Protection or Emission System Compliant. ESP is being used as a shorthand for the concept in lieu of final wording. Members can also suggest alternative language, and one suggestion was Improved Catalyst Life.

The Lubricants Committee initially approved this new donut concept in February, in a 7-to-4 vote. In Baltimore, though, the idea came under sharp attack by Barbara Dennis of BP Castrol. The description implies that non-ESP products are unsuitable for earlier emissions systems, which misrepresents its applicability to the overwhelming majority of consumer vehicles, she noted.

Further, it will create an advantaged class of products based on chemical limits rather than actual performance and may unfairly discriminate against suitable chemistries, she stressed. Significantly, it departs, for the first time, from the current practice of using engine and bench performance tests as a definer.

Dennis pointed to marketplace concerns, as well. ESP will add more confusion to an already complex system not easily understood by the consumer. The lettering in the ‘new donut is likely to be illegible unless the new donut is larger, which may take up more label space than a marketer would prefer. And it forces label change for all licensees, whether using the new donut attribute or not.

Coming as a surprise to some members was the revelation that the new donut would not replace the current one but join it as a displayable symbol. Some containers could display both donuts, taking up valuable and scarce label space.

Well, a company just doesnt have to use the donut, one committee member suggested. However, that might risk undermining the API engine oil licensing system – which the committee does not want to do.

API did say it lacks knowledge about the extent and type of emissions systems worldwide. It will ask ILSAC to verify that vehicle manufacturers are installing the same emission control systems in all their new vehicles worldwide as in the United States.

The Lubricants Committee also heard suggestions for an educational program to make known GF-4s quality improvements. Shells Cliff Venier urged that this be a cooperative effort.

The Alliances Shapiro added that auto manufacturers are particularly interested in explaining the benefit of GF-4 and promoting the starburst. The Automotive Oil Change Association, which represents the quick-lube industry, also strongly supports an educational program, and there is widespread acknowledgement of the benefit of this kind of cooperative venture.

Yet, is this just wishful thinking? When the GF series was developed in the early 1990s there was a general understanding that a consumer education program would be undertaken to publicize the new program, including the new starburst symbol used on GF oils. That educational program was not as sustained as many had hoped.

Likewise, during GF-3s development a consumer education program was proposed to point out its quality improvements, but the Lubricants Committee did not support that proposal.

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