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Lubricant manufacturers have a number of high-stakes options to consider in how they roll out PC-10, the coming heavy-duty motor oil upgrade.

One strategic option, previously discussed, is to take a wait-and-see approach this October when the new oils debut as API CJ-4, as the new category will be known.

Another is to simply let go of CI-4 PLUS – the current category – and move forward with CJ-4 alone.

And then theres the option to market both types of oil, old and new. But in inventory alone this dual-spec strategy across the whole line of products could mean manufacturers, marketers, and even end users are doubling their bulk storage costs for heavy-duty motor oil.

There is a fourth option. That is to hybridize the dual-spec strategy by offering CJ-4 in one, or only a very limited number of brands – and only in packages and drums, not bulk. At the same time, shadow CJ-4 with CI-4 PLUS. As demand for CJ-4 builds, the manufacturer could then shift the balance between the two products. This approach would be similar to the strategies used by many to roll out Mercon V automatic transmission fluid and SAE 5W-20 engine oil. But which of its heavy-duty motor oils does the marketer with multiple brands elect to upgrade?

Caterpillar already made the decision to play this two-card hand. It recently announced that it will bifurcate its heavy-duty motor oil recommendations, requiring a new category called ECF-2 for off-highway use and pre-2007 truck engines, and a separate category, ECF-3, for 2007 on-road truck engines. Although technically not the same as offering both CI-4 PLUS and CJ-4, Cats move is fundamentally equivalent in terms of the model years it serves. And its a move that puts a little more distance between its specifications and those being pursued by the American Petroleum Institute.

What does it mean when a leading engine manufacturer puts its chips on requiring different specs for different model year engines when and how it did? Does it mean Caterpillar has the winning hand because it knows something others dont about the number of new and old vehicles expected to be on the road in 2007?

Or does it mean that in spite of all the positioning and posturing taking place by the OEMs with regards to CJ-4, at least one of them is not convinced that the new category will offer a true performance upgrade over CI-4 and therefore, although backward compatible, not be practical and good for its customers? Does Cat believe it must follow its own path to assure it meets the needs of its customers first, with both old and new engines? If it does, then there may be good reason for it – and others are likely to follow.

Given all this complexity and uncertainty, is there a fifth option worth considering?

How about the option of offering a universal heavy-duty motor oil that strikes a balance between performance and price for both pre- and post-2007 engines. As an example, consider that the ash content in a CI-4 PLUS oil typically ranges from 1.2 percent to 1.5 percent by weight; one could theoretically formulate a product at the low end of the range that met the new CJ-4 category in all dimensions except the elemental restrictions.

Such a product would protect the 07 engines while enabling longer drain intervals in all on-highway and off-road equipment, whether it be legacy hardware or the latest in emissions compliance technology. This compromise approach might appeal to large fleets with the expertise to clean their own diesel particulate filters, and would certainly appeal to the smaller fleets who buy many of their new trucks used in the first place.

One immediate issue with this last strategic option, however, is that by its very nature, this type of universal oil cannot be licensed as API CJ-4. But who knows, maybe some of the small- to mid-size fleets really dont care if their oil has an API license. Maybe there is a large, untapped market of price-conscious end users willing to gamble on non-licensed engine oil if its backed by a major and made available at a significantly lower price than CJ-4. Although this may sound like heresy, it could become a reality if only one major or engine builder decides to break ranks (if only a little) to exploit the fleet demographics and price-and-performance differential between CI-4 PLUS and CJ-4. Maybe its already starting to happen.

Because if CJ-4 does not offer a demonstrable performance upgrade over CI-4 PLUS, yet costs end users significantly more to procure, it likely will be going nowhere fast. And if that happens, CJ-4 could prove to be the most expensive category ever developed and the slowest ever to be accepted in the marketplace.

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