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I really enjoy the variety of subjects that come up on the Internet. Just the other day, I was reading Liz Westons column on MSN. A writer on personal finance, her column was on the fact that used vehicles are no longer such a good deal versus new vehicles. The old conventional wisdom had it that, since automobiles depreciate so rapidly, it is much better to get a 2- or 3-year-old vehicle in good condition than to buy new. However, due to the recession and the accompanying tightness in lending, there arent as many desirable used vehicles on the market out there.

The result, Weston noted, is that the average price being paid for a 3-year-old vehicle has been trending upwards over the last few years. The graph below illustrates the gain, which averaged 10 percent a year from 2008 to 2010.

One of the primary sources of well-maintained, lower mileage vehicles has been the leasing market. Because of reluctance by lenders (including car dealers) to accommodate the lease market, there are fewer vehicles available through this channel. This is especially apparent in some models., the well-known vehicle rating service, recently showed the average price of certain 3-year-old vehicles. Many had risen 30 percent in just one year (see table, page 8).

The upshot of all of this is that a new vehicle looks more appealing than ever before. Obviously, this may not last but car dealers are undoubtedly excited about the possibilities.

There is another, perhaps more ominous, story out there. In the Oct. 2 Wall Street Journal, there was an article on the return of big sport-utility vehicle sales. SUV sales are up for the year, which is good news for car dealers as they make a larger profit on these big boys than on the smaller vehicles. However, there is concern about fuel economy and recent government comments on the need to reduce fuel consumption.

Youre no doubt aware that the U.S. government has proposed that automakers more than double the 2009 average fuel economy of their fleets by 2025, from the current average of 27.5 miles per gallon for cars and 23.5 mpg for light trucks. The WSJ writers noted there are actually four possible scenarios suggested for boosting fuel economy another 3 percent to 6 percent a year, beyond the fleet-average 35.5 mpg target already set for 2016. These proposals range from a modest boost which would raise the fuel economy target to 47 mpg by 2025, to a truly aggressive approach that would push the target to 62 mpg.

To achieve an average of 62 mpg, the government believes that automakers would likely have to boost sales of gas-electric hybrids to as much as 68 percent of the market, and cut as much as 26 percent from the weight of the average vehicle, which was 4,108 pounds in 2009. Neither of these options is good news to the auto industry.

The best information I have suggests that hybrids accounted for about 4 percent of new-car sales this year. However, the best hybrids currently are boasting about 40 mpg. Thats still a ways to go to 47 mpg, and a veritable mountain to climb to get to 62 mpg. The obvious answer is to add full-electric vehicles to the mix.

One all-electric vehicle is the Tesla. In fact, a classmate of mine from high school has a Tesla. He tells me that it has about a 240-mile range and can go as fast as his local roads will allow (not to mention local law enforcement; Im sure he would go faster if he could). His Tesla is a two-seater that can go from 0-60 mph in 3.7 seconds and clocks in at about $100,000. But dont despair; Tesla has a four-door sedan coming out in 2012 which is expected to have a 300-mile range and go from 0-60 in 5.6 seconds. No price yet, but I would imagine that the extra two doors will cost no more than $25,000 more!

Youre probably asking yourself at this point what all this has to do with automotive lubricants. Well, there are a number of issues here. In the case of Liz Westons article, it sounds like there might be more new cars on the road soon, as used vehicles are less appealing price-wise. That would point towards lower viscosity oils with the latest ILSAC GF-5/API SN engine oil credentials.

For the used-car fleet, there will be a continued need for backward-compatible SAE 5W-30 and 10W-30 multigrades, in addition to the growing need for SAE 5W-20 and 0W-20 oils for the latest models. Its hard to say where the more exotic SAE 0W-XX (where XX is 10 or 15) might fit. There is definitely some fuel economy to be gained with such low viscosities, but how much and will it bring a significant impact to the market?

Conventional vehicles will still require automatic transmission fluids and gear lubricants. In fact, transmission fluids offer some possible fuel economy benefits through reduced viscosity and frictional characteristics. Transmission designs such as double-clutch transmissions (DCT) also add to the fuel economy gain. Gear lubes will also find a small but important place in vehicles that still use rear-wheel drive, such as large SUVs.

Hybrid vehicles will also need API-category oils since they will still have a traditional internal combustion engine on board to supply power and to help with battery charging. The use of diesel engines in hybrids has been much discussed and seems to be a likely outcome. That would possibly mean more API C category diesel engine oils would be required. Gear and transmission fluids will still be a part of the picture here as well.

But when it comes to electric vehicles, the oil requirement runs into a stone wall. The Tesla, for example, has no conventional transmission or gearbox. It uses a direct link from battery to wheel, through nothing more than a rheostat to meter the power sent to the wheels. No oil! In fact, the only lubrication that I can think of for the Tesla would be wheel bearings and possibly suspension. It should be clear to all that electric vehicles mean a big drop in engine oil, transmission fluid and gear lubricant requirements. Grease may survive.

Is there any hope for automotive oils in the future? Certainly, all-electric systems will reduce the amount of oil used in vehicles. Heavy-duty vehicles dont get a free pass on this one either. Remember that the really big off-road commercial vehicles (think 60-cubic-yard ore haulers) are all electromotive; meaning that the engine powers a generator which drives the wheels. A similar system could be used over the road. It would still require engine oil but most transmission and gear lubrication would not be required any more. It would not be a big step to see battery-powered trucks such as those now used in some inner-city delivery vehicles.

This all leads me to yet another article I recently read in the Wall Street Journal. The topic was The Genius of the Tinkerer. It described how great ideas often come from necessity and result from taking existing components and putting them together in new and different ways.

The example given was incubators for at-risk newborns in developing countries. Even when available, the really spiffy incubator models from the developed worlds medical supply houses rarely survive in environments such as remote villages or the jungle, due to a lack of spare parts and service manuals that were too complex. A team led by Timothy Prestero, CEO of Design that Matters, saw the problem and came up with a neonatal warmer that relies largely on components that any local mechanic is likely familiar with: spare car parts. The NeoNurture incubator, which has been nominated for a National Design Award, is warmed by sealed-beam headlights and uses dashboard fans to circulate the air. Where the electrical supply is unreliable, it can be powered by a simple motorcycle battery.

Likewise, there must be innovative ways to harness our lubrication knowledge and skills. Lets hope that there are some genius tinkerers out there coming up with new approaches for the automotive and oil industries, because thats what will be needed to get the fuel economy we need and tocontinue to support the industry that has been so good to all of us.

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