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Last April, I wrote that change seems to happen in cycles, and changes in engine oil specifications and processes in particular seem to follow a roughly 20-year cycle.

For example, in the post-war era from 1948-1968, API and ASTM developed the basics of engine oil standards and tests. Next, from 1968 to 1988, the so-called tripartite made up of API, ASTM and the Society of Automotive Engineers hammered out engine oil developments. And the last major change occurred in 1988, with the advent of the American Petroleum Institutes Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System we have today, developed in cooperation with ILSAC, the auto industrys lubricants committee.

The source of this insight was the recently retired Bob Olree of General Motors, former ILSAC/Oil Committee chairman. Since it is now about 20 years after ILSAC and API formed their system, he hinted, we should be seeing the next great thing in engine oil specs. And sure enough, General Motors has been hard at work developing a new approach to engine oil specifications for its vehicles.

The new specification is called GEOS (Global Engine Oil Specification) and is designed to meet GMs need for uniform international product performance standards.

GM currently uses the ILSAC/API system to identify engine oils meeting the requirements for its engines. However, this standard is mainly for North America and Japan, even though ILSAC (International Lubricant Standardization & Approval Committee) had intended to address global requirements. The European market uses standards from ACEA (the Association des Constructeurs Europeens dAutomobiles, Europes auto manufacturers association).

Last October, GM outlined the reasoning behind its decision to develop GEOS and some of the work that had been done up to that time. Speaking to the Independent Lubricant Manufacturers Association, the Pontiac, Mich.-based materials engineer Eric R. Johnson, of GM Power Train, Fuels and Lubricants, North America, explained that GM currently maintains a large number of internal engine oil specifications. This leads to a lot of duplication or near-duplication of requirements and results in significant redundancy. Since simplification is always an advantageous goal, it certainly makes sense that a unified standard would be desirable.

Johnson pointed out that GM uses 20 different engines which are produced at 18 manufacturing plants worldwide. With one globally standardized engine oil platform, the auto giant believes that it will achieve improved quality and greater customer satisfaction. Whether engines are shipped wet (with oil in the crankcase) or dry, the risk of oil contamination with non-specification oil is significantly reduced. There are also resource savings if the oil in an engine doesnt have to be drained and refilled prior to shipping the finished vehicle.

GM also believes that GEOS will accelerate its movement towards more environmentally friendly goals, such as increased fuel economy, optimized drain intervals and improved emissions performance. Emissions and fuel economy are the primary drivers for engine design with automakers, due to federal mandates. GMs oil drain intervals are set according to data from its on-board Oil Life Monitors, which calculate vehicle parameters including engine RPM, vehicle miles, oil temperature and operation hours, and then alerts the driver when its time to change the oil. At this time, GM does not include oil properties in this calculation for oil change interval.

On Feb. 3, the API Lubricants Committee held a special Standards Meeting in Houston, where Kevin Ferrick, APIs manager for engine oil licensing, presented GEOS to the group. After hearing the above drivers for GEOS, the meeting went on to discuss how the GEOS standard was developing – and what else might lie in the future.

As Ferrick related, the GEOS standard was developed from the inputs of GM engineers globally. They identified current and future engine oil characteristics that they believed to be important for overall GM engine performance. They then prioritized a list of engine oil improvements that they believed were needed to address these characteristics. From that list, engine test procedures and limits were then identified.

GEOS actually includes two distinct products, GEOS A and GEOS B.

GEOS A is intended for worldwide use as factory-fill engine oil in GM gasoline engines, and as service-fill for GM worldwide, except in Europe.

GEOS B is intended for worldwide use as factory-fill and service-fill oil in GM light-duty diesel engines. It is also intended as the service-fill engine oil for GM gasoline engines in Europe.

As you might expect from the fact that GEOS speaks specifically to European needs (like those of GMs Opel subsidiary), the specification calls for a blend of ILSAC and ACEA engine and chemical tests. (See outline, page 10.)

Timing for the new standard was presented at the API meeting. GEOS B is to be introduced for factory fill in Europe in the first half of this year, and in time for service fill for the continents 2010 model-year vehicles. GEOS A is targeted for introduction for U.S. factory fill in the first half of 2010, and for service fill in time for the 2011 model year.

GM added that GEOS is intended to be an evolving specification as both technology and needs change.

Of course, the big question is whether GM plans to license GEOS, as it already licenses Dexron transmission fluids. At the October ILMA meeting, Johnson hedged a bit and said his company was looking at it. At last months API meeting, it was a bit clearer that licensing is a part of GMs overall plan. It has identified the name and a logo, and is in the process of registering both. API heard that GM was exploring options related to licensing, but understood that it was probably a sure thing.

The API meeting also got a look at GMs fee structure ideas. The table, bottom left, shows the auto companys thoughts compared to the current API structure.

While GM is moving ahead with GEOS, it states it still supports ILSACs standards – which raises an interesting question. If GM supports ILSAC and is moving ahead with GEOS, which is preferred for its North American vehicles? GEOS will be available worldwide, so there might be a paradoxical situation in which either oil is satisfactory. Which product would GM deem more appropriate, and what would be the impact on warranty claims?

In Eric Johnsons October presentation, he reminded listeners that GMs owners manuals say the only oils acceptable for use in its gasoline-fueled engines are those meeting the GM6094M spec and showing the API Starburst logo. He added that GM will move to GEOS as the required product as soon as it is available – presumably by the 2011 model year. Does this mean that GM will push for ILSAC standards which meet GEOS? If so, what will future ILSAC standards look like?

Certainly GM is entitled to develop and introduce a global standard for its engine oil requirements. It needs to supply products that are successful and acceptable to its customers.

Oil marketers, however, are left with the dilemma of trying to decide what course to follow. Will they quietly go along with the licensing and royalties scheme proposed by GM, or will they balk at the cost? Will API agree to a separate and significantly increased fee structure by GM, added to its own fees? If ILSAC moves ahead with a new category based on GEOS, will that be satisfactory to GM? Will ILSAC standards adopt the GM fee structure?

In addition, lubricant additive companies are now faced with a new set of standards that must be met in order to gain acceptance for their chemistries. The added cost of engine testing will be significant.

Likewise, the American Chemistry Councils Code of Practice for engine test acceptance will be sorely tried. ACEA procedures do not adhere to the same precision requirements that ILSAC tests are called to meet. Will ACC agree to these differing standards?

Additionally, will the ACEA engine tests be run in North America, or will they require shipping samples to Europe, with the resulting long lead times, potential formulation adjustments and program delays? Finally, some of the test procedures identified in the GEOS specification are in-house General Motors tests (available at outside laboratories) and have not undergone ASTM scrutiny.

Meanwhile, GM spokesman Tom Read told me the GEOS brand name will be unveiled in this quarter, and approvals are pending on several products.

How much more complicated can this get? As Keith Jackson used to say on the ABC College Football broadcasts, Whoa Nellie! This is going to be some struggle!

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