The Importance of Monitoring Lubricants

Lifetime Fluids

By Ron McElroy

As poets, songwriters and authors often remind us; “Nothing lasts forever.” This is especially relevant in the automotive world.  However, recent attitudes from some Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) automakers suggest “nothing lasts forever” is up for debate. 

This is what the term “Lifetime Fluids” implies.  Whose lifetime is the OEM talking about — our lifetime, the lifetime of the car, the lifetime of the component, or the lifetime of the fluid?  Is it subject to warranty terms?  If so, what is the drivetrain warranty and what about fluid preventative maintenance service requirements?  Do they refer to normal or severe operating conditions as a determining factor?  What first appeared to be an exciting new fluid engineering discovery has raised a multitude of important, yet unanswered questions?  The most important of which is; are “Lifetime Fluids” a product of technology or a marketing strategy”?

“Lifetime Fluid” sells cars for the OEMs, but at what expense to the dealerships, and are new car owners driving a heap in the making?

Monitering Lubricants

All modern lubricants contain additives that inhibit fluid breakdown.  As these additives deplete, the fluid degrades and are no longer able to perform its intended function.  Therefore, vital fluids must be monitored and tested to ensure that preventative maintenance services are performed before they become overdue.   

Over past decades, there have been major improvements to internal combustion engine and drive train.  These technological innovations have increased fuel efficiency and extended service intervals, as well as improved performance and reliability.  For instance, the advent of fuel injection over carburetors has doubled oil change intervals.  Hence, the old adage “you can pay me now, or pay me later” message of a 3,000-mile oil change has been replaced with OEM intervals extending up to 12,000 miles.

However, not all improvements have gone as planned.  One such example is General Motors’ (GM) Oil Life Monitor (OLM) system.  This system relies on a computer based software algorithm that estimates when to change oil based on operating conditions, not actual fluid condition.  With the introduction of the 2013 model year, GM re-calibrated its OLM system to include a mileage parameter activated at 5,000 miles and recalled vehicles equipped with the original OLM. GM did not get specific on why it made this change, but it can be inferred they determined that the longer oil change intervals might have had a negative impact on long-term engine performance and customer satisfaction.

What About Reliability?

Could it be that the algorithm was not aggressive enough to prevent lubrication failure resulting in damage to engines within the warranty period?  This is a good example of what most of have learned by experience, if we change oil before the additives are depleted (regardless of what the owner’s manual suggests), we can expect the engine to last well over 200,000 miles.

Technology has also transformed transmissions, improving efficiency and performance; but what about reliability?  It is estimated that over 13 million automatic transmissions fail every year. Most of these failures occur in vehicles with perfectly good running engines.  So, why do transmissions give out before engines?  

There are several basic reasons that cause so many modern transmissions to fail.  These complex units have morphed from four-speed to six, eight and even 10-speed capabilities.  They are smaller and lighter (despite increases in engine horsepower), subjected to more torque and most importantly, higher operating temperatures.  The Automatic Transmission Rebuilders Association (ATRA) estimates that 90% of all transmission failures are due to fluid breakdown. With this fact, why do OEM’s promote automatic transmission fluid as a “Lifetime Fluid”?

Of all lubricants, automatic transmission fluid (ATF) is the most complex and often transmission specific.  They require unique fluid technologies to meet very specific performance requirements.  They are tasked with reducing friction to prevent wear, yet must allow levels of adhesion so clutch materials can properly engage.  They also contain a wide variety of chemical compounds including anti-wear additives, rust and corrosion inhibitors, detergents, dispersants and surfactants, kinematic viscosity and viscosity index improvers and modifiers, seal swell additives and agents, anti-foaming additives and anti-oxidation compounds to inhibit oxidation and boil-off, cold-flow improvers, high temperature thickeners, gasket conditioners, pour point depressant and petroleum dye. 

Friction and heat drive the oxidation rate of fluids.  The normal operating temperature for transmission fluids is approximately 175° – 195° Fahrenheit (F).  At this temperature, the fluid’s service-life under “Normal Driving Conditions” should reach or exceed 100,000 miles.  However, under severe driving conditions (such as towing, hauling heavy loads or spinning wheels in snow or mud) the operating temperatures of transmissions rise.  For every 20°F – 25°F increase in the fluids temperature, the rate of oxidation can double cutting the fluid’s service-life in half. 

The operating temperature limit of ATF is just one reason why transmission fluids require testing and shorter fluid maintenance intervals should be recommended for vehicles operated under severe driving conditions (most cars).

Marketing Schemes May Not Deliver Right Outcome

Despite these requirements and intense demands, many OEMs insist that their transmissions (as well as power steering and brake systems) are equipped with “Lifetime Fluids.”   

As with the overextended oil change scenario, these marketing schemes do not always achieve their desired outcome.  A class action lawsuit against one OEM alleges they misrepresented certain models with automatic transmission are equipped with “Lifetime Fluids ”, which supposedly do not need to have the ATF replaced during the life of the vehicle.

According to the lawsuit, the key selling feature of these vehicles was its Service and Warranty Program, which promised to “maximize vehicle safety, reliability and resale value by minimizing breakdowns resulting from wear, and minimizing cost and inconvenience.”   It was further alleged, failure to replace the transmission fluid leads to sudden and premature catastrophic failure of the transmission; and that owners were forced to shell out the cost of repair or replacement, despite express instruction that replacing the fluid was not necessary.

Gas and Go?

Has “just gas up and go” become the OEM paradigm for shaping new car sales – regardless of whether these practices are stranding drivers on the side of the road?

With overwhelming statistics showing that all vital fluids require servicing, why are OEMs shifting from fluid preventative maintenance schedules to promoting sealed transmissions and “Lifetime Fluids”?   Perhaps it has something to do with “free maintenance services” during the warranty period.  Touting “Lifetime Fluids” is another way to reduce cost and bolster J. D. Power Consumer Satisfaction Surveys including “Cost of Ownership”.

It is a well-documented scientific fact that fluid preventative maintenance maintains performance and prolongs the service life of a vehicle.  Therefore, “Lifetime Fluids” are a device of marketing rather than engineering.

Here in lies the dilemma for you, the service provider . . . are you responsible for maintaining your customer’s vehicle and generating service profits that are necessary to keeping the dealership viable?  Or, are you buying into the OEM’s debate – these fluids no longer require servicing or replacement?