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When I bought my first automobile, a used 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air (boy do I wish I still owned it!), there was no owners manual. I didnt worry about what oil to use since I was just starting my career in the oil industry and I planned to use my companys brand(Richfield Oil). Since then, Ive owned 15 other automobiles, pickup trucks, SUVs and vans. In each case, Ive either used the brand of the company I worked for (Unocal and Pennzoil) or oil formulations from customers of my additive company (Edwin Cooper/Afton and Chevron Oronite).

For a number of years I was a serious Do-It-Yourselfer – that is, until I started changing my oil under a very low-profile car (a Pontiac 2000) in the summer in southeast Texas. I decided at that point it was too hot and sticky to continue. From that time forward, Ive gone to quick lubes of various marketers and paid more but suffered less.

Over my life, I have owned 10 domestic vehicles including General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, Pontiac and Buick name-plates, along with six foreign vehicles like VW, Opel, Honda and Nissan. In most cases, I have barely read the owners manual and relied on my background in the oil industry to make a proper oil selection.

I think that may all change in the future, and heres why. According to a recent forecast from Jim Lang of the newsletter Aftermarket Insight, the vehicle mix in the United States and Canada will change drastically in the next few years. He presents some interesting predictions on what types of vehicles will be available. The graphic at left summarizes his viewpoint on vehicle mix.

The impact of this data is quite interesting to ponder. If foreign-badged cars and light trucks make up nearly half of all vehicles sold by 2017, there must be some accommodation for engine oils specifically recommended for them. While Japanese and Korean manufacturers so far have accepted the ILSAC GF-series engine oil specification for their vehicles in North America, European vehicle makers tend to insist that their engines need to use European-type oils, starting with ACEA specifications and adding a layer of individual OEM approvals. For example, a VW diesel needs to use engine oil that VW has approved for the purpose.

This means the engine oil market is going to be changing quite a bit in the next few years. I suspect also that the mix of products available will be different – more varied – from the relatively homogenous scene we see now.

One of the major changes will be viscosity. Over the years, viscosity for gasoline engines has come down from a relatively heavy straight-grade SAE 30 to today’s lighter SAE 5W-20 and SAE 5W-30 multigrades. This reduction in viscosity will continue with the introduction of SAE 0W-10 and SAE 0W-15. These new grades will give some additional boost to fuel economy, but must take care they dont get too low in high temperature, high shear viscosity (HTHS). Currently, SAE 20 has a HTHS viscosity limit of 2.6 cPs, but it might be as low as 1.7 cPs for a proposed SAE 10 grade. Engine design will dictate how far down this road we will be able to go without sacrificing durability.

Another area of change will be OEM-specific engine oils. We are already seeing this in the introduction of GMs Dexos engine oil specifications, which can only be licensed from GM. While no other automaker has moved to issue and license its own specification in North America, it seems likely that Japanese companies such as Toyota and Nissan could want to bring their genuine oil formulations to this market. Genuine oils are common in Japan, where each OEM has its own take on the proper engine oil for its vehicles, and each issues approvals for products that meet its performance goals. If the North America market does fragment, genuine oils will be the direction the Japanese brands take.

European engine oil standards will also make their appearance in the North American market. In addition to the various ACEA specifications, European OEMs also have their own requirements. Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, BMW, Fiat, Peugeot and others require additional performance tests to fully qualify oils for use in their vehicles. To date, they have reluctantly accepted ILSAC grades in North America, but have been less than thrilled with the oils being used. Some North American engine oil marketers have tried to accommodate European sensibilities through the addition of ACEA standards in certain premium oil brands. But if each OEM requires that its own approved engine oils be used in North Americas market, it will be an inventory nightmare for oil marketers and quick lubes and independent garages.

Another driver for engine oil types will be the increasing use of diesel engines in North America. There is no doubt that diesel engines provide better fuel economy than gasoline engines of similar output. U.S. drivers still have reservations about light-duty diesel engine noise and exhaust odor, but these can be overcome. Lang projects that light trucks and SUVs will be half of the U.S. market by 2016, and these are where diesel engines would find their greatest application.

Light-duty diesel engines come from many suppliers, including some traditionally heavy-duty OEMs. Cummins has a significant position in the pickup truck market today and will undoubtedly grow in that market. Navistar and Deere both supply engines for the commercial and fleet markets. In addition, GM and Ford are building up production of their own diesel engines for their vehicles. These engines will incorporate the latest in clean emissions performance, including technologies that have been road-tested in Europe for a number of years.

Diesel engines require a different type of engine oil for optimum performance. Their higher temperatures and heavier loads call for greater HTHS viscosities than those proposed for gasoline engines. The traditional diesel engine oil grade is SAE 15W-40 with a HTHS viscosity of 3.5 cPs. Recent research in the heavy-duty market has found that moving to an SAE 10W-30 viscosity gives about 0.5 percent improvement in fuel economy, with HTHS vis still at 3.5 cPs. However, some heavy-duty OEMs believe that another 0.5 percent could be gained by letting this drop to current gasoline-engine limits of 2.9 cPs.

So, what will the product mix in the engine oil market look like in the next few years? Will it be about the same or will there be significant changes? Heres my take on the oils that will be available and where youll be able to find them.

On the gasoline side, there will be lower viscosities available, with SAE 0W-20 being the major grade. Marketers will need to field one or possibly two products meeting OEM standards that cover most of the expected engine requirements. There will probably be an additional OEM oil for the more demanding European OEM needs. Genuine oils will be available for Japanese cars, but principally at their new-car dealers.

The diesel side will require oils that meet both North American and European requirements. The most common viscosity grades will be SAE 10W-30 and SAE 15W-40. Those two grades will cover the majority of engine requirements. For the most demanding engine needs, the vehicle owner will need to go to a dealer.

As far as where these oils will be available, car dealers will be the winner in gaining position in the marketplace. Quick lubes, independent garages and auto parts stores will hold their own in share, while big box stores may struggle to find the right mix for their shelves. There will definitely be some specialization, with some independent installers perhaps choosing to be the foreign car experts. In addition, there will be a need for distributors and jobbers who will hold a more varied inventory to support the smaller garages.

Oil marketers will need to rethink their position on what product types they will carry and how they will get them to the customer. There will be a greater diversity of product types, grades and performance in the future.

There is no doubt in my mind that DIY will be less and less important, and that the Do-It-for-Me crowd will be the gainers. Disposal of used oil is certainly not going to be any easier and only garages, dealers and quick lubes will be set up to handle used oil. Vehicles will be harder to work on, and for many owners the cost savings alone wont justify crawling under the car.

The future is always tough to predict, and always different from what we expect. But vehicles with internal combustion engines will continue to be the most common means of transportation. I plan on having one or more in my garage for as long as I can drive, and I will be taking them to the quick lube or car dealer for the oil changes that keep them running.

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