The future for passenger car lubricants

More cars and the climate emergency puts pressure on vehicle technology.

With more than 1.2bn passenger cars globally, governments are implementing more stringent regulation to curb emissions, leading to greater innovations in engine technology. But, according to two of Lubrizol's most senior developers, it's been a challenge for the lubes industry to develop high-performing formulations that can adequately protect engines. 

According to Drs Colin Morton and Ewan Debridge - respectively Senior Director and Technology Director for Lubrizol's Consumer Engine Lubricants - COVID-19 has had a recent and significant impact, causing a decline in new car sales with people remote working, resulting in improved air quality.  Despite this, the climate change debate has 'heated up' while governments incentivise comsumers to get rid of old vehicles and buy new, more efficient ones.

The way lubricants are being developed, tested and marketed to consumers has also changed as a result of huge advancements in passenger engine technology. The authors cite the 2020 implementation of global specification ILSAC GF-6, with its sub-category split of GF-6A and GF-6B, while lower viscosity lubricants are key to reducing engine friction and driving up fuel efficiency.

Meanwhile European emissions legislation has toughened up to require emissions aftertreatment devices in vehicles forcing the lubes industry to formulate reduced SAPs (sulfated ash, phosphorous, sulfur) content. The ACEA (European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association) and several European OEMs now demand low-SAPs in modern lubricants.

However, Morton and Delbridge state the these developments must not compromise durability over a wider range of performance parameters, operating conditions and viscosity grades.  They also note that driving lubes development towards efficiency and safety doesn't mean that the chemistries available are limitless; regulations abound to protect human health and the environment.

In answering the question: "Which is the best lube?" the challenge is now signficantly greater as lubes of the same viscosity grade are typically formulated with the same high-quality based oils. Semi-synthetic versus full synthetic formulations can generally provide the same level of engine protection, rendering marketing to the consumer on the basis of 'good, better, best' less relevant.

Alongside ILSAC and ACEA industry standards, many passenger car OEMs are specifying lubricants for their vehicles to optimise performance. Lubrizol's experts suggest consumers will need guidance and education in making the right choices.

In hailing the dynamism and sophistication of today's car lubricant market, the Lubrizol team concludes with a rallying cry to lubes sector: "Many industry players believe it is essential to design the lubricant for the right application, and it is the industry’s collective responsibility to ensure that the right lubricant is used throughout a vehicle’s lifetime. Closer engagement and partnership between automakers, lubricant formulators and additive suppliers will be essential for shared success in the years to come."