As you may know, I am a devoted internal combustion engine fan. Its easy to be a fan with the track record of the ICE. From the beginning, ever since Karl Benz (with significant technical help from his wife, Bertha) built his first Patent-Motorwagen, the automobile industry has been growing and maturing.
Benzs original engine ran on ether or alcohol and delivered about 1 to 2 horsepower. Henry Ford perfected the concept of mass production and chose an ICE, which was truly a multi-fuel chariot. It was a 2.9-liter, inline-four engine that delivered about 20 horsepower with a top speed of 45 miles per hour. From that point forward, engine design evolved to larger-displacement, carbureted engines until the early 1970s when the first energy crunch occurred and emissions began to play a significant role in engine design.
The basic design has never changed. Whether it is a two-stroke or four-stroke cycle, the essential sequence of intake, compression, power and exhaust remains. The two-stroke actually delivers more power versus displacement, but due to the need to lubricate directly through the fuel and thus burn the oil along with it, the emissions are prohibitive.
The four-stroke is better with regard to emissions control and general reliability. Lubrication has kept pace with engine design and emissions requirements, providing excellent protection, fuel economy and durability.
Fast forward to November, when a Bloomberg article stated: With demand expected to decline from 2025, lubricant makers are wary of Eastman Kodaks demise when it failed to grasp the potential of the digital camera in the 1970s.
The article continued: The $146 billion lubricants industry is at risk of suffering the same fate as Kodak, thanks to the rise of electric vehicles. Is Bloomberg on to something, or, to paraphrase Mark Twain, are the rumors of the death of the lubricants industry greatly exaggerated?
Lets dive into the electric pool and see whats swimming there.
As we all know, government has intervened to promote electrically powered vehicles, even though the details of energy efficiency and infrastructure requirements have been left behind. The deck is stacked in favor of electric, with emissions limits being driven down to the point where ultra-low-emissions vehicles and even zero-emissions vehicles are the darlings of the environmental class. In addition, the U.S. government (among others) has made it more attractive to buy electric with $7,500 in tax deductions. Similar legislation and incentives can be found in most countries these days.
On the plus side, electric and hybrid-electric vehicles are extremely low in emissions. (Hybrids do have some but much lower levels.) They are very quiet, to which I can personally attest, since on several occasions I have been surprised by an electric car pulling up behind me as I walk through a parking lot. There is an appeal to the latest and greatest in technology. In fact, I find it interesting to go to a shopping mall and find a Tesla sales location. No more test drives, just good-looking cars to sit in and dream of driving.
Ive found a good source for thoughts on many automotive subjects. Its called the SAE Member Connection. Its an internet forum on topics raised by members of SAE International and hosted on their webpage. There has been a recent discussion on the oil industry vs. electric vehicle technology, which has raised a lot of thoughts on the topic. One commenter identified some key issues, which Ive paraphrased:
Complexity is bad. ICEs have become amazingly efficient and durable, but it looks like diminishing returns are catching up with that progress. Electric propulsion, except for storing energy, is a lot simpler.
We need reliable, affordable transportation. EV range anxiety is real. Most of the time people only travel short distances, but there is security in extra range. When EV range is equivalent to that of ICEs, people will feel OK with a switch to electric.
The oil industry isnt the bad guy. It succeeds by providing products that people are willing to buy. It will provide services tailored to EVs when required.
No one would deny that an electric motor is a much simpler device than an ICE. Thats especially true today with on-board computers controlling fuel injection, ignition timing, emissions control and a host of other critical operating conditions. Just give an electric motor a power source and away we go. The big drawback to electric motor power is the battery.
The first all-electrics had very limited ranges of about 100 miles. In America, if you cant drive at least 350 miles between fueling stops (or re-charges), it will be difficult to get much buy-in. I, for one, appreciate the stop, since I can get out, stretch my legs, buy some coffee and snacks, make my comfort stop and change drivers while refueling. Battery design has improved to the point that zero-emissions vehicles are now theoretically able to reach that 350-mile goal.
Next comes the dreaded infrastructure discussion. Batteries can be recharged, but specialized stations are needed. They are beginning to pop up everywhere, but there is still not a systematic progression of charging stations similar to the gas stations found across the country. Some locations are better than others. For instance, my local Walmart has recently installed several charging spaces in their parking lot. I dont know who goes there, but I assume it is locals with zero-emissions vehicles.
While on a recent vacation in Northern California, we stopped at a restaurant in the Napa Valley. Our server was telling us about her new car, which is electric. Her employer has set up some charging stations in their parking lot, which she can use to recharge her car. (Nice perk!) Another employee also has a new electric, which he plugged into the charging grid at the same time as our server. When he unplugged, the whole system went down! Apparently, there is a sequence to this process.
The next question is how much it costs to recharge. Edmunds, a long-time source for car information, asks, What if a gallon of gasoline cost $3 at breakfast time, was free at lunch, bumped up to $8 in the afternoon, but was only $2 in the middle of the night? Welcome to the world of charging up plug-in electric vehicles. There are issues to be resolved that are well beyond the scope of this discussion but bear on the viability of electric transportation.
Battery replacement cost is a part of the discussion, as well. General Motors has stated in the past that batteries should last at least 10 years. Thats a good thing, since the cost to replace a battery is currently about $156 per kilowatt hour, which computes to $15,600 for the 100kWh battery found in a Tesla Model S. The industry is targeting for $100 per kWh by 2023. However, this is still significantly higher than the cost of a new ICE vehicle.
The Bloomberg piece says that 2025 is when lubricants demand will begin to shrink due to ICE decline. Here are some facts:
1. There are over 275 million cars and light trucks on the road in the United States. Globally, the number is estimated at a staggering one billion!
2. The sales of these vehicles globally is on the order of 95 million per year.
3. While it is difficult to get a global picture about scrappage rates in relation to sales, the United States annual sales are pretty steady at 17 million, and scrappage is on the order of 7 million per year. That means the net growth of the light-duty vehicle market is about 10 million annually.
For those of you who change oil for a living, there are a lot of cars and light trucks needing oil changes, and the number gets bigger every year. Even if that growth is entirely ultra-low- and zero-emissions vehicles, it will take a long time to even approach a significant number in the U.S.
Of course, the news is not all bad for oil marketers and service outlets. In its Global EV Outlook 2019, the International Energy Agency projects that EVs will grow from 5 million vehicles in 2018 to about 140 million by 2030. However, the impact will be only a reduction of about 2.5 million barrels per day in global oil demand by 2030.
McKinsey & Co., a global consulting firm, has projected a flattening of demand in the lubricants market but no substantial loss.
Certainly, this bodes well for engine oil technology as well as auxiliary lubricants such as gear oils and transmission fluids. An ultra-low- or zero-emissions vehicle still has lubrication requirements. In fact, the largest lubricant volume in most vehicles is the transmission-almost double that of engine oil at initial fill. That may not change much. There are alternate systems to deliver power to the wheels that use lubricants.
Farm implements often use hydrostatic drives, and that may be a possibility for the brave new world of electrics. Hydrostatic transmissions use oil pressure from a hydraulic pump to power hydraulic motors. These systems are often used on heavy equipment and can be controlled very precisely. Since an electric motor may not offer the same speed reduction characteristics as an ICE, this may be a valuable power delivery system for zero-emissions cars and trucks.
All of the auxiliary lubricants (greases and specialized fluids) will likely be required but may be of a significantly different chemistry. I can see the growth of synthetics in automotive applications making a significant jump. It will be a real bonanza for specialty lubricants formulators and marketers.
So, my answer to the Bloomberg obituary is: Not so fast! Electric vehicles will be a part of the market, but ICEs will have an extended life and an honored place in global transportation.
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 email@example.com.