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Can the American Petroleum Institute issue an engine oil specification on its own, without waiting for a nod from other industry groups?

Yes, declared the groups managing attorney, Doug Morris, during an API Lubricants Committee teleconference on June 22. We can adopt a European, that is ACEA, specification (or for that matter any regional specification), and use it to certify motor oils. We could also, for example, adopt an OEM spec and part of an ACEA specification, mix them together and then generate an API specification. Basically, we [API] have a lot of flexibility.

In a follow-up discussion with LubesnGreases, he pointed out, API continues to be careful to ensure that all engine oil specifications are thoroughly vetted throughout the industry prior to acceptance. So ideally, any new specification would have the support of the auto industry, additive companies, test laboratories and technical societies such as SAE International and ASTM – but APIs own authority to issue specifications does not hinge on it.

Morriss declaration represents a step in a procession, under way for a number of years, from a narrow API interpretation of its own role in engine oil certification to a much wider one, both geographically and technically. The API Lubricants Committee, the lubricants industrys policy-making body, is now on record as free to certify for official API licensing any specification it alone approves.

Morriss opinion has the immediate effect of opening the door for a new type of API Engine Oil Service Category to join its two longstanding ones, S for gasoline engines and C for heavy-duty diesels. Although an oil category for flexible-fuel vehicles was briefly discussed a decade ago, a new light-duty diesel category based largely on European specifications is now under intensive discussion (the raison detre for Morriss statement). This would be the first new category type since the API Service Category system got its start, as a result of a 1970 agreement between the oil industry and auto manufacturers. API then began licensing engine oils, and we saw the rise of its two service marks, the donut, registered in 1983, and the starburst, launched in 1993.

Look at the bigger picture, though, and APIs powerful assertion resonates with deeper meaning. Morris reiterated the trade groups right to issue specifications for the products produced by its own member companies, and also to set quality standards for them; API already has the authority and power to oversee engine oils it licenses in the marketplace, through its aftermarket audit program.

API – that is, the engine oil manufacturing industry – holds the reins for developing and issuing engine oil specifications for North America. And with the worldwide impact of the API category system, those reins extend around the world. So its reasonable to wonder, how actively will API steer engine oil development in the future?

Impact on Others?

APIs declaration also can be seen as a warning flare for ASTM, the consensus group that creates the standard test methods that underpin engine oil certification. ASTM was once a force in passenger car engine oil specifications, but its slow, deliberative pace frustrated the auto industry. Today it plays only a glancing role in gasoline engine oils, having ceded much influence to the joint auto-oil committee known as ILSAC/Oil.

ASTM still has much to offer, and its Heavy Duty Engine Oil Classification Panel was at the very center of developing the robust new API CJ-4 diesel oil category, which begins licensing this month (see page 12). But ASTM knew that maintaining its central position was tenable only so long as the classification panel stayed on track to deliver an acceptable specification on time. If it had faltered in any way, ASTM would have been bypassed and marginalized – just as it was for gasoline engine oil.

Could a more proactive API leave ASTM rolling further and further down a side track?

Another group that might be closely watching APIs stance is ACEA, the European vehicle manufacturers trade association. Based in Brussels, ACEA has full authority for developing and issuing engine oil specifications – and it is not shy about this central role. While the petroleum industry, the manufacturers of engine oil, holds sway in the United States, the opposite is the case in Europe. There, vehicle manufacturers – the specifiers of engine oil – are literally and figuratively in the drivers seat.

While Europes lubricant and additives industries play a participative role and offer comment throughout the specification development process, it is ACEA that makes the final call on when to issue updated specifications (called ACEA Oil Sequences) and their technical content. As one ACEA representative told LubesnGreases a few years ago, Our vehicles, our specifications.

Cause for Concern?

APIs statement that it has legal authority to unilaterally issue engine oil specifications was meant to reassure the auto industry of its ability to be responsive. It might, on second thought, reinforce some existing OEM anxiety.

General Motors Bob Olree is chairman of the interindustry ILSAC/Oil Committee which is developing the new GF-5 gasoline engine oil quality upgrade, for issuance in mid-2009. Hes already on the record as being disappointed in APIs follow-through, feeling that APIs current SM category is a watered-down version of the ILSAC GF-4 specification it was meant to resemble.

ILSAC was unhappy about the manner in which [APIs Lubricants Committee] defined the companion API SM category, in particular the omission of the Sequence IIIGA, TEOST and other GF-4 requirements for some of the API SM viscosity grades, Olree told Infineums Insight publication in June.

He added, ILSAC/Oil cannot change human nature. Were always going to have those who want to market something other than the latest consensus standard. ILSAC/Oil has to keep its eye on its primary task and that is to develop a good consensus standard that balances the need of the auto industry against what the oil and additive companies can supply. And thats what we need to keep focused on and not go off down other paths.

Well. Is one of these other paths the request from DaimlerChrysler, a fellow automaker, that API introduce a new light-duty diesel category?

If ILSAC was dissatisfied with APIs performance on SM – a traditional, straight-forward quality upgrade developed over a period of three years – and if it couldnt persuade API to issue an SM specification that was technically equivalent to GF-4 across the board, that dissatisfaction cant help but lurk in the wings. That may prove to be an unsettling factor as API decides whether and how to tackle a new light-duty diesel category.

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