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From time to time Ive commented on the development of new engine oil categories. The American Petroleum Institutes voluntary Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System (Document 1509) has been the bible of engine oil category development as well as labeling for the last 20 years. The 17th edition of EOLCS was published in September 2012 and is available as a download on the API website.

Even with this update in place, APIs Lubricants Group is already hard at work to modify one of the most important pieces of the document, the six pages that make up Annex C. Thats the section on how to develop a new automotive engine oil category, in this case for gasoline-fueled cars and light trucks. The API Lubricants group has been working on the new process and is getting close to a final recommendation.

API 1509 was originally developed to address the concerns of automakers that vehicle owners couldnt be sure that they were getting the engine oil performance level that was required for their car or light truck. In particular, there was no simple way to identify engine oils that gave satisfactory fuel economy benefits for the latest-model vehicles, although API had used its Donut service mark for some time to display the engine oil category, SAE viscosity grade and fuel conserving tendencies. However, the OEMs were concerned that their newest vehicles would be serviced with oils that were designed for prior-year models, and hence have potential for big problems.

Before 1993, when Document 1509 first codified the processes for engine oil upgrades, the need for engine oil improvements was determined by an ad hoc committee. If someone (meaning an automaker) wanted to see an upgrade in the specification, SAE International would form a committee to review the request and to recommend proceeding – or not – on the years-long task of developing a new engine oil category. This needs committee was a balanced group drawn from engine oil users (the OEMs) and producers (oil and additive industry types).

I know youll find it hard to believe, but there were differences of opinion about what constituted need. For instance, when the automakers said they needed improvements in performance, the oil industry replied (not unreasonably), Can you provide us with some evidence of need? The OEMs responded (not unreasonably), what do you need to see, baskets of failed parts?

Improvements, of course, are a bit subjective. Oil and additive companies asserted that engine oils had to protect the engine from wear and other damage, and did exactly that. But OEMs increasingly focused on areas such as fuel economy, emissions reductions and the oils performance over its service life.

Automakers also argued that the API Donut, with its string of alpha-numeric codes, was not user friendly. What consumers needed was a simple logo that could be shown in vehicle owners manuals and on containers of qualified engine oils. That would simplify the purchase and assure the right oil went into new cars.

What finally emerged in 1994 was another API trademark, the so-called Starburst certification symbol still found on the front labels of engine oil containers. The Starburst indicated that the product had the proper engine protection and fuel economy performance, without needing to check its API category, and that it represented the latest and greatest in engine oils. Since succeeding categories of engine oil were backwards compatible – able to service earlier vehicles without risk – an owner could be confident that his or her vehicle was getting oil that would provide good performance.

Of course, the devil is always in the details. From the first, there was a lot of anguish and hand-wringing over what tests should be used to measure performance, as well as where to set the test limits for certifying a products quality.

Even more fundamentally (and rather like a vampire in a teenage horror flick), the question keeps arising: How do we know we really need a new engine oil specification? Weve struggled through the introduction of five new light-duty categories since the early 90s and it isnt any easier. In fact, the process is tough enough that everyone wants to improve it.

Fortunately, there is a model to follow: Annex D of 1509, the mechanism for developing new heavy-duty engine oils. It seems to be functional and gets the job done with comparatively little angst.

The API Lubricants Group has been hard at work trying to come up with a process for gasoline-fueled, light-duty truck and passenger car engine oils that covers the essential questions and uses some of the best of Annex D.

While nothing is finalized at this point, some details have begun to emerge. First, a new group called the Automotive Oil Advisory Panel has been formed. The AOAP will be co-chaired by representatives from API and the automotive OEM group known as ILSAC (which now stands for International Lubricant Specification Advisory Committee). AOAP is the focal point for new category developments which can be requested by anyone, although the OEMs are typically the source of new category requests. This is very similar to Annex D.

One of the primary questions for AOAP is who can be a member. While the final wording of this section of Annex C is still being reviewed, the core statement being deliberated is as follows: AOAP membership shall consist of automakers (auto) and oil and additive companies (oil) that have a material interest in the specification. The term material interest is also being discussed, but seems to signify whoever makes vehicles or engines as well as whoever makes finished oils, or additives for the finished oils.

Another concern is voting within the AOAP. No final rules have been set yet, but there will always be a basic tension between users and producers as to need, tests and limits for every engine oil category. In any negotiation, consensus is always desired but hard to obtain. There is no difference here.

Heres another issue that should hit everyone: who pays! The cost of developing a new category is hundreds of millions of dollars. Test development is extremely costly and can result not only in new tests and engines but also require new test stand construction. When the new generation Caterpillar SCOTE engines were first introduced, the test labs needed to build new test stands to handle the increased power output of the engines. So not only the physical stand itself but instrumentation may need to be replaced or improved when tackling an upgrade.

Assuming that Annex C follows Annex D in general format, after determining need a development team will need to be established. Currently, PC-11, the next heavy-duty engine oil upgrade, is in this New Category Development Phase, and has a team engaged in guiding the development of tests and limits for the new category.

Once that work is done, the next phase is implementing the new category with licensing procedures. This may include such things as determining when the new category may be used, and how long a lead time there should be from final delivery of the category and its tests to the first licensing date. (Wishful thinking says one year, but of late this lead time has become shorter due to constraints outside the industrys control, such as government regulations).

In addition, designations for the new category need to be introduced, which may include API nomenclature such as SN or Starburst identifiers like GF-5. As I said earlier, the devil is in the details. For those who want to dive deeper, API Document 1509 can be found at, under the area labeled Certification Programs.

So where does this leave us? As consumers, we will continue to see oils introduced to meet the needs of the vehicles on the road. Since all categories so far have been backwards compatible, you can be sure that when you buy oil at your local big box or automotive parts store, the Starburst on the container assures you that the oil will satisfactorily protect your engine. Your local oil change outlet should have the latest and greatest in its bulk storage tanks or on its shelves, ready to protect your engine and provide long, efficient operation. Your automobile dealers service bays should stock the oil your car or light truck needs for optimum performance.

Lest anyone think that the introduction of new oil categories is a piece of cake, it takes many individuals from various parts of the overall industry working together to develop each specification and to formulate the oils needed to meet those specifications. Sometimes it can get a bit contentious, but in the end the needs of all parties are met and consumers receive the benefit. Id say the people doing all of this deserve a big Atta boy for their efforts and their dedication.

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