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Im pretty sure that most if not all of you remember the Back to the Future movies. The three films all centered around an improbable time machine, which was a DeLorean with a bunch of time travel technology, including a plutonium-fueled flux capacitor. It was invented by Dr. Emmett Brown, known as Doc, played by Christopher Lloyd. Michael J. Fox played the main character, Marty McFly. The plot of each movie revolved around Marty trying to fix things in the past so the present and future would be okay. Lots of fun scenes and technobabble.

Right now youre probably wondering if this is about DeLorean Motor Co. actually creating a time machine or Elon Musk buying it and sending it into space. Both possibilities sound like a great story, and they would be, but thats not whats happening in this column.

As Ive noted on many occasions, life was relatively simple in 1965 when I started in the business. Vehicle engines were also simple, relatively speaking: no emissions controls and no demand for fuel economy. They were carbureted, and big! SAE 30 was the preferred oil, and 1,000 to 1,500 miles was the recommended drain interval.

Were now looking at fuel injected-including direct injection with turbocharging-computer controlled, small displacement but high power output engines with stringent emissions and fuel economy requirements. The preferred oil is now SAE 0W-20 or SAE 5W-30 and drain intervals are much longer. Some oil marketers are even advertising annual oil drains.

The question, then, is whats next. What forces are driving the changes in automobiles and lubricants that we are so concerned about? Well, you havent seen anything yet. The changes coming are not just evolutionary, they are revolutionary.

Lubrizol recently posted a video on LinkedIn talking about digital disruption. This seems to be a term used by many to describe the changes that are occurring in the world. In Lubrizols case, they spoke about connectivity, autonomy and shared mobility. Theres a lot in these terms, and I have some of my own thoughts about them.

Connectivity is a great place to start. From an automotive point of view, this could reference such things as the vehicle telling the driver when the car is drifting out of the lane or when a vehicle ahead suddenly stops.

There are other things that connective devices or systems can share with the driver. My trusty Nissan Quest has a back-up system that gives me an audible alert when I am getting too close to an object behind me. At the time we bought the van in 2008, back-up cameras were not as available but the alarm was very welcome.

Its possible to have the vehicle talk directly with the original equipment manufacturer that built it or to other external sources. My example is an onboard diagnostic device called Hum, available from Verizon. Hum is plugged into the error code system to detect any engine problems. I have one on the van that can notify a mechanic in the event there is a major mechanical issue. The problem can be diagnosed remotely and, if the van is not drivable, Hum can call a tow truck. It utilizes my cell phone as a connector.

From the oil standpoint, the oil life monitoring system on your vehicle analyzes your driving and its effect on the engine oils usable life. There are some folks who dont necessarily agree with the OLM, but it is a very useful reminder to change your oil.

Ive addressed autonomy before. Using a computer and lots of inputs, an autonomous vehicle can drive itself without the benefit of a human at the wheel. In jest, Ive noted that perhaps the autonomous vehicle can determine when its time to change the oil and go to a designated oil change facility. There it would be met by a robot service provider, which would connect with the vehicle and know what needs to be done. In fact, the owner of the vehicle could send it to get the oil changed without even being there. Kinda scary, if you ask me.

Autonomy has its shortcomings. Recently here in the Phoenix area, a pedestrian was run over and killed by an autonomous vehicle. Although there was a human behind the wheel, he was distracted and didnt see the pedestrian in time. This raises the question about how autonomous and human-driven vehicles will be able to share the road. While the computer-driven vehicle will be safe and within all applicable laws, it will not be able to analyze irrational humans behind the wheel. The robot is never in a hurry and willing to take a chance by speeding or being reckless, while humans are notorious for such behaviors. I suspect that it will take some time to figure that one out.

In any event, lubrication requirements for autonomous vehicles will not be earth-shattering. Currently, the vehicles being automated require the same lubricants now called for by the OEMs.

Shared mobility really gets at the heart of whats happening in society today. For millennials, for example, there is much less pressure to own a vehicle. They primarily live in urban areas that have public transportation in place, or use ridesharing services such as Uber or one of its competitors. In some cases, one person may own a vehicle that everyone in an apartment shares. Obviously, costs are split and the outlay for a vehicle is reduced for all.

Lets think about this for a minute. My generation, the one before the baby boomers, valued their independence highly, which meant a vehicle for each family. As the family matured, two vehicles became the standard, and if there were children old enough to drive, there could be more. What that says is that lots of vehicles were on the road and they used gasoline (or diesel) and motor oil.

The millennial generation flips that on its head. There could be a decided drop in vehicle sales ahead, and oil sales could consequently drop, as well. Another impact is that some millennials favor hybrid and all-electric vehicles. Hybrids would be easy, since they still need gasoline and motor oil. All-electric vehicles create a huge problem for oil marketers, since about the only oils used are transmission fluids and some hydraulic fluids. This could impact sales of petroleum products significantly.

I should also mention that natural gas and hydrogen have been proposed as fuels for passenger car vehicles, since emissions are much cleaner and easier to control. Natural gas is no problem because there have been gasoline-to-natural gas conversion kits sold for many years. Normally they are for commercial vehicles, but there is rising interest to adapt this to the passenger car automotive market. The big drawback to a move towards natural gas is the lack of a distribution system.

Hydrogen is another possibility. Combustion of hydrogen yields the cleanest emissions, since theoretically the emissions are just water. There are a few drawbacks. Distribution systems are the same as natural gas, while the Hindenburg effect is another. There is the mistaken notion that, should there be an accident with a hydrogen-fueled vehicle, everything will blow up as the Hindenburg did in 1937. It actually doesnt happen that way at all. Since hydrogen is lighter than air, if a fuel tank fails for any reason, the hydrogen immediately escapes and rises into the atmosphere.

Either of these fuel systems could be introduced relatively quickly, and the lubricants have already been developed for industrial use and would be readily available. These oils primarily need extra oxidation inhibition and can operate successfully with very low levels of other components.

Circling back to Lubrizols video, digital disruption is upon us with lane-change sensors, back-up cameras and diagnostics communicating with the driver and even OEMs.

To my way of thinking, autonomous vehicles will need to either be in their own lanes or be the only form of vehicle on the road. The human psychology of driving may be impossible to properly program into a computer, and even then irrational acts by human drivers will be a significant problem.

Shared mobility is also here already. Millennials are a significant portion of the driving (or at least riding) population. Public transportation will be a growth arena and vehicle design may well have to be re-thought for the sharing economy.

The changes that must be made have to move quicker if we are to keep pace with these disrupters. I can hear Doc in the back of my head saying, Great Scott!

Industry consultant Steve Swedberg has over 40 years experience in lubricants, most notably with Pennzoil and Chevron Oronite. He is a longtime member of the American Chemical Society, ASTM International and SAE International, where he was chairman of Technical Committee 1 on automotive engine oils. He can be reached at

Lyle Bowman

On a more serious note, a great friend from the industry passed away in April. Lyle Bowman was a lifelong Chevron Oroniter. I met Lyle when I was interviewing for a position with Oronite. Lyle and his colleague, Roger Deacon, grilled me for a day, and I was very impressed by Lyle and the Oronite organization.

Don Johnson, my boss at Pennzoil, said that his first job out of college was working for Lyle at Chevron Chemical in San Francisco in 1968. He and others at Chevron taught me about the lubricant and additive business.

Mike MacMillan notes that Lyle was also quite active in ASTM International after he retired. He prepared the ballots for Subcommittee B of ASTMs Committee D02 on Petroleum Products, assembled the ballot responses and took whatever actions necessary to resolve any problems or negative comments. He was also a mentor to some of the other facilitators who came on board after him.

Dennis Groh, formerly with Ford, said that when he first started in the business Lyle was an easily recognizable participant at SAE meetings. He had a strong voice, highly visible presence and was willing to share his opinion on many issues. Dennis said that he found Lyle to be a man of high personal integrity who always attempted to do what he believed was right. If new facts were persuasively and responsibly presented to him, he was willing to re-think his position.

Dennis speaks for many of us in the industry when he says that Lyle proved to be a good and honest person who worked hard to leave things better than he found them. Lyle will definitely be missed and will be very hard to replace. -Steve Swedberg

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