By Mark Rees
Vice President, Strategy, Research and New Business Development

What business does a commercial automaker have at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES)? Plenty, if you ask Daimler Trucks.

The truck maker attended CES, one of the world’s biggest and most-reported-on tradeshows of any year. It’s where we hear about futuristic devices from some of the biggest names in tech, like Google, Apple, Amazon and more.

Daimler? They were on hand—for the first time—to announce their $570 million investment in bringing level 4 automated trucks to the road within a decade. “Level 4” automation refers to “automated travel in defined areas and between defined hubs without any expectation of the system that a user will respond to a request to intervene.” For comparison, Level 5 automation means no human driver is necessary at all.

Automation is coming for the automotive industry. Some of the biggest names in both the automotive and tech industries are working to make it happen. It’ll hit all areas of driving, from commercial trucking fleets looking to drive previously unthought-of new efficiencies, to new consumer mobility that increasingly trends toward ridesharing and other innovative ways of getting around. WIRED describes the phenomenon in recent years:

In the past five years, autonomous driving has gone from “maybe possible” to “definitely possible” to “inevitable” to “how did anyone ever think this wasn’t inevitable?” to “now commercially available.” In December 2018, Waymo, the company that emerged from Google’s self-driving-car project, officially started its commercial self-driving-car service in the suburbs of Phoenix. The details of the program—it’s available only to a few hundred vetted riders, and human safety operators will remain behind the wheel—may be underwhelming but don’t erase its significance. People are now paying for robot rides.

Like with any new automotive or engine technology, it comes with some bigger implications for the entire drivetrain. Last month, we discussed why durability is so crucial to achieving the sustainability numbers the industry has long strived to reach. Automation is a part of that story too, as increased precision can help improve efficiency. A driverless car doesn’t have to worry about a lead foot, after all, nor does it have to worry about a fatigued driver. Consider also how automation enables fleet platooning, where two or more trucks are linked in a single convoy, using connectivity technology and automated support systems to maintain a set, close distance between each other—helping to lower fuel consumption and CO2 emissions and optimizing transport of goods.

The jury is still out on platooning, however. Interestingly, Daimler specifically noted in its announcement at CES that it will be reassessing its commitment to platooning, noting that its own internal testing with the technology had demonstrated underwhelming fuel savings. Unsurprisingly, platooning technology developer Peloton rebutted Daimlers claims.

Regardless of the specific techniques pursued by automakers, automation could fundamentally change how vehicle fleets are utilized. And at Lubrizol, we’re continuously assessing new technologies’ impact on fluid formulations, and how we can best optimize performance of those fluids to help new technology meet its potential. And as new technologies converge and change the shape of fleet operation, one crucial item must be considered by the engine oil industry: the oil drain interval.

There’s a variety of reasons the length of the oil drain is something of a controversial topic in our industry, but there are a couple things to consider up front:

  • Longer drains, fewer resources. From this perspective, we might assume that oil drain intervals should last as long as possible. It means less oil taken up out of the ground, and less used oil creating additional waste. An oil that is used in a vehicle longer is beneficial toward sustainability goals for these reasons.
  • Shorter drains, peak performance. The functionality of today’s modern, efficient vehicles depends upon the oil operating at peak performance throughout the drain interval. And one thing we know for certain is that, inevitably, lubricant performance tends to degrade over the course of prolonged use. Critical lubricant attributes can suffer, including fuel economy, emission system protection, and engine durability.

There is a close relationship here, and it’s one that we must be looking at with increased scrutiny. As automation and other technologies put new demands on the engine, the importance of higher- performing lubricants is even stronger than ever.

We don’t yet know what a heavily automated operation regime for vehicle fleets could mean for the lubricant used in those applications. A truck platoon, for instance, that doesn’t fully depend on a human driver could theoretically operate for much longer periods of time, under different engine conditions. The typical vehicle used by a ridesharing company like Uber, if automated, could be racking up far more miles every year. A driverless or driver-assisted heavy-duty vehicle could be operating for 70 percent of the day rather than just during normal waking hours. In short, the duty cycles for automated vehicles could be dramatically different than in the past. This changes the equation, not least in terms of how frequently that vehicle’s oil should be changed.

One thing is certain: The lubricants industry must be working hard to discover how we can best be a part of a new technological push toward efficient vehicles, and how we can be optimizing the oil drain interval for longevity, and performance is one of the most important points to consider.

Our view: The oil drain interval is something critical to consider as vehicle technology continues to change at an increasingly fast rate. Automation is one way this is happening—and certainly, there are others.

The only way, then, to ensure optimized performance across all attributes is the formulation and promotion of higher-performing lubricants at a broad scale. The lubricants industry has a duty to continue its evolution alongside new technology, delivering what’s best for the vehicle of tomorrow.

For more information on the automation of the vehicle industry, contact your Lubrizol representative.

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