You’ll remember that my column in June discussed the new heavy-duty engine oil category, currently called PC-12. It must be the year of new standards because Toyota has proposed a new process for light-duty vehicles called the International Fluids Consortium. There are always good reasons for change, and it’s no different this time. It’s important to see where we have come from, so we can see where we’re headed. So, let’s look at what led up to the IFC proposal and what the drivers are for this latest effort.
Many of you would be surprised to know that the first oil specification was developed in 1911 by the Society of Automotive Engineers. It was the forerunner of the J300 viscosity classification system in use today. The first iteration, published in 1923, included viscosity as well as such oil properties as color, pour point, carbon residue and corrosion resistance. The next version from 1926 removed the oil properties and kept only viscosity. This remained in place until 1947 when the American Petroleum Institute’s system of regular, premium and heavy-duty designations was included. Generally, regular was only base oil, premium contained oxidation inhibitors, and heavy-duty added dispersant-detergent to the oxidation inhibitor.
There were lingering questions about this system, so in 1952, API and the American Society for Testing and Materials developed the Engine Service Classification System. They reworked it in 1955 and again in 1960. The result was the service categories ML, MM, and MS for gasoline engines and DG, DM and DS for diesel engines. That lasted for only a few years.
By 1969 API, ASTM and SAE had developed an entirely new system, designed to meet the changing warranty, maintenance and lubrication needs of automakers. SAE set up eight service categories for passenger cars. These were picked based on then-current commercial interests. ASTM set up the testing protocols, including test methods and performance characteristics, which technically described each of the categories defined by SAE. API created the user language, which included the letter designations we know as API Categories SA, SB, SC, etc. SAE, ASTM and API—referred to as the tripartite—then tied them all together in SAE document J183.
As all of you are aware, this system was changed as engine design evolved to meet more stringent emissions and fuel economy regulations. Categories were made obsolete when test methods were no longer available to demonstrate performance levels. For example, API SH was retired when some of the engine tests used to define the category ran out of parts. No parts, no test; no test, no category. API did make some provisions for older engines to be covered by insisting on “backwards compatibility,” which simply means that the latest category covers earlier category requirements even though the engine tests are unavailable.
This system survived for the next 20 years, but there were always concerns expressed by the OEMs. They were facing a changing technological challenge. They needed better fuel economy, lighter vehicles and lower emissions. Designs were changing and there were customer issues. API, on the other hand, was concerned about the constant pressure to upgrade engine oils for smaller engines with higher output while containing emissions. This led to frustration for both organizations. In meetings where OEMs mentioned problems, marketers said they were not seeing the problems. Comments about seeing baskets of failed parts were batted back and forth.
While I was chairman of the SAE Technical Committee I (engine oils), a new concept was proposed by the OEMs. After much discussion and compromises by both sides, Mike MacMillan of GM and Don Johnson from Pennzoil engineered an agreement in which the International Lubricants Specifications Advisory Committee defined engine needs, ASTM continued with their test development and management, and API developed user language and a system to oversee the oil, which came to be known as the Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System, also called EOLCS or API 1509.
“API, on the other hand, was concerned about the constant pressure to upgrade engine oils for smaller engines with higher output while containing emissions.”
The new system added licensing (including fees), while the American Chemical Council developed a protocol for testing and modifications to engine oil formulations as well as additional requirements for both the OEMs and the oil marketers. The oil additive industry basically aligned itself with the oil marketers because the oil companies were their customers. This is the system that created the GF designations. The program was launched in 1992 and, after several modifications and updates, is still in force today.
One of the issues that has continued to nag the OEMs is the engine oil specifications defined by the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association and Japanese Automotive Standards Organization. In fact, Toyota is the early driving force behind the IFC proposal and has been joined by four of the top 10 automotive OEMs in this effort.
The IFC consortium intends to develop international automotive fluid performance specifications. It will replace the current standards of API, ACEA and JASO. In addition, IFC will administer a licensing program for its specifications.
So, what’s the purpose behind the IFC’s proposal? As they have stated in a press release, “The IFC’s goal is to accelerate the adoption of new global specifications by connecting and engaging industry experts to improve fluid performance through collaboration.” As I noted earlier, one of the main sources of frustration for the IFC has been the slow pace at which the API and other systems have been able to implement new categories. The best example of that is the nearly 10 years required to go from GF-5 to GF-6. That’s way too slow.
JAMA members led the development of JASO GVL-1 and successfully completed it in two years. They tried to keep it as simple as possible and stayed focused. They used existing tests from ASTM that covered the durability needs. But they chose to develop their own fuel economy tests. They use this as an example to explain how related industries can work together in a collaborative environment.
“The IFC’s goal is to accelerate the adoption of new global specifications by connecting and engaging industry experts to improve fluid performance through collaboration.”
Lubricant manufacturers, oil marketers, additive makers and oil companies will all have input on draft IFC performance specifications through an advisory committee that will be subject to an annual membership fee. However, only the OEM consortium members will decide on the final fluid specifications. In addition, IFC plans to develop specifications for all vehicle powertrain and ancillary systems. Further, these specifications will cover both internal combustion engine vehicles and electric vehicles. They also envision a program to certify, license and audit approved fluids.
I’m definitely in favor of a set of international specifications for transmission fluids. It’s an expressed wish on my part that the large number of transmission fluid specifications in the market can be reduced to a manageable level. It would make it much better for fast oil changers, independent garages and even dealer service departments.
IFC intends to be an international platform to standardize any oils and fluids covering powertrain systems. Obviously, the starting point will be improving the current industry system for near-future light-duty engine oils. Ultimately, IFC wants to be the true international platform supporting all regions including Asia, North America and Europe. So long as quality is managed correctly, JASO, ASTM, CEC or others can be included as a part of future specifications.
My take on this proposal is that it is a long time coming. To the surprise of my oil and additive industry colleagues, I have a strong leaning toward the OEMs’ position. After all, they are the ones who ultimately deal with any disgruntled customers. The pace of change due to technological advances, legislative decrees and societal insistence on environmentally appropriate products force them to make some quick improvements. If it’s done right and everyone is on board, it will inevitably produce some positive changes.
I know there will be a lot of pushback from the oil industry, not to mention the additive folks. They have a huge stake in this as well. It will take a lot of discussing, cussing, cooperation, compromise and consensus before this gets done. In the end, it will be a better system; not perfect but better. As an old friend from Japan said, “We hope our industry partners understand our intention and the benefit for them to participate in it.”
Steve Swedberg is an industry consultant with 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.