Dr. Colin Morton
Dr. Ewan Delbridge
Since no unified lubricant solution exists to encompass the changing requirements, only the nimblest manufacturers who can adapt quickly to new realities will survive.
Climate change is becoming more of a concern in countries around the world and, with more than 1.2 billion passenger vehicles on the road, the vehicles’ role in creating greenhouse gases is being taken more seriously. There is a continued effort to keep up with rapidly changing environmental conditions, and the passenger car lubricant (PCL) market is doing its part.
But the complexity of the PCL market is the result of multiple value chain participants, as well as balancing the needs of both business-to-business customers and consumers. As each of those participants’ needs change, so too must the PCL manufacturers’ outlook and product mix, making it a constantly evolving market in which only the nimblest companies will survive.
In this article, we will delve into what those changes look like and how they are affecting the PCL market during the COVID 19 pandemic, as well as forecast what the future will hold.
Where the market stands: At its heart, societal needs guide the PCL market, namely:
- To encourage more environmentally responsible lubricant composition.
- To shape more energy-sustainable transportation opportunities.
No single unified lubricant solution currently on the market satisfies all those conditions, which means manufacturers are faced with the prospect of producing multiple formulations designed to reduce passenger car emissions and improve fuel efficiencies to optimal levels.
As the market grows increasingly fragmented, it requires new technologies to flourish. In many cases, they demand backward compatibility or are specifically designed for specific engines and vehicles. But it is not just the PCL market that is evolving: Engine design focuses on greater efficiencies, including low speed pre-ignition (LSPI) mitigation, higher loads, a wider variety of operating temperatures, and the ability to accommodate aftermarket emissions-mitigating equipment.
What we are seeing: One of the most striking effects of COVID 19 was the fact that new car sales were expected to be 20 percent to 30 percent lower in 2020 than they had been in previous years, this turned out to be around 16 percent lower when year-end sales closed. In part, that’s because remote working reduced the number of miles that people travel, as well as the reduced movement within the economy as shutdown orders have kept people at home more frequently. In addition, consumer concerns over the spread of the virus have slowed the growth of shared mobility schemes like Uber and Lyft.
Despite lower sales numbers, there are significant changes happening within the passenger car market. New car sales incentives, designed to clear inventory, stimulate production and encourage electrification of the fleet, are moving people toward more efficient options than previous generations. In addition, the clean air that has resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic has placed more governmental emphasis on maintaining those gains as the pandemic recedes.
The market delivery systems are also changing in the COVID 19 world. Where before most consumers purchased their PCL from authorized dealerships, they are now becoming far more comfortable, thanks to pandemic conditions, to purchasing the PCLs online.
As a result, there’s significant pressure to produce lower viscosity PCLs from safe and sustainable chemistries, even though they are subjected to a wider range of operating temperatures than previous PCLs. For example, TGDI engines stress lubricants more than PFI engines, and the expectation is that PCLs will reduce the number of LSPI incidents.
As we survey the market, it is clearly moving toward higher-performing, higher-value lubricants. Light viscosity lubricants are now the norm, formulated to improve efficiency gains despite the challenges they provide for manufacturers. After all, lower viscosity lubricants are complicated by the natural thickening agents of macromolecular additives, performance polymers and new additive technologies, all of which are increasingly necessary to provide efficiency and durability. But those complications also present opportunities for manufacturers to improve their products and make sure they meet these new, more stringent guidelines—which leads us to the final trend we see in the PCL market.
As environmental concerns rise in importance across the country, people are showing more interest in which chemicals lubricant manufacturers use to make their products. What this means in practical terms is that the scope of available new chemistries is shrinking, and fewer elements from the periodic table can be used in new formulations. As a result, chemists are now required to extract the same chemistry from less-resource-intensive processes, including energy usage. That means that some of the current chemistry may need to undergo reformulation.
What it means: Since the necessary performance levels never go backward, new technologies are necessary to continue meeting the ever-elevating standards of the PCL market. Not only will new testing be required to accommodate new efficiency, durability and aftertreatment capability standards, additives and performance polymers must change as well.
Additionally, new design criteria beyond lubrication must be considered (e.g., viscosity profiles). Not only will performance polymers be affected, but also dispersants, detergents, antioxidant systems and anticorrosion-/friction-reduction systems must be enhanced. In short, lubricant manufacturers must grapple with the reality of making efficient, safe and sustainable chemistries.
Where we are going: As rapid as the changes to the PCL market have become, it is an exciting moment in its history. It has never been as dynamic and sophisticated as it is today and will only get increasingly more so as we move into the future. Though 2020 was a challenging year, bringing with it as it did the unexpected challenges of COVID 19, it also marked the start of a new decade, which we believe will be marked by significant improvements in the PCL market. It is important to build a sustainable future through partnerships between OEMs, industry bodies and trade groups. After all, it is those partnerships that will be the key to any future success of the PCL industry.
Dr. Colin Morton is the senior director for Consumer Lubricants for The Lubrizol Corporation. Dr. Ewan Delbridge is the director of technology for Consumer Lubricants for The Lubrizol Corporation.