05 Mar 2024

Better living through chemistry

The 10th anniversary of VLS led the body to reflect on the work it has undertaken thus far, and look ahead to upcoming challenges

In 2013, in response to growing concerns over the increasing specificity of vehicle lubricants, and claims being made by some companies about their product, trade body the United Kingdom Lubricants Association (UKLA), which includes some of the biggest names in the sector, established the Verification of Lubricant Specifications (VLS).

With an increasing number of vehicle specific products available at ever lower levels of viscosity, VLS was set up to investigate products that might not be what they claim to be.

Fast-forward 10 years, and the organisation has now looked into 96 different complaints that have been brought to its attention by oil companies, garages and members of the public. Once underway, a sample will be obtained and independently tested, and then the VLS Technical Review Panel bring forth their findings. The shortest-running case was settled within a month, while the record for longest case has yet to be definitively set with a three-year case still up and running. In most examples, the company that brought the item in question to market more accurately re-label their product, and the case is settled.

With its first decade under its belt ,VLS decided to commemorate the milestone with a new white paper, Complex Chemistry: A Technical Review of VLS Investigations 2013-2023, and a press lunch at London’s RAC Club in Pall Mall.

Members of the organisation met the press to discuss the organisation’s ongoing mission, and it also provided an opportunity to meet the the new VLS Chair, Jacquie Berryman, who has taken over from Mike Bewsey who himself has become President of the UKLA. On the organisation, Jacquie commented: “There are a real mix of businesses from across the industry. We have both the independent oil marketers, and major oil marketers like Total Energies, the additive suppliers, associations related to workshops and garage networks.”

Key principles
Alan Outhwaite, Chairman of the VLS Technical Review Panel, then took us through the highlights the newly published White Paper, looking at how the market has changed over the last 10 years, and how VLS has influenced the market.

“The key principles are that we have to verify if we receive a complaint, we have to verify if it’s a valid complaint. We’re prepared to source an independent sample and we’ll test accordingly. All the information that I receive as the head of the Technical Review Panel is anonymized.”

He continued: “The Technical Review Panel consists of myself and eleven other recognised experts in the lubricants industry. We’ve got major companies, lubricant companies, additive companies, as well as some independents. It’s a good cross section of the market. We’ll look at data and information about a particular product. We then meet as a panel and say is this valid? What are our concerns? We then instruct the Secretariat to procure a sample and then we’ll look at some testing. Sometimes it’s just a desk exercise where you’ll look at the technical data sheet and say there’s conflicting claims here, there’s wrong application advice or it is too general on where products can be used. This dialogue is important. and in the majority of cases it’s resolved amicably. The purpose of VLS is to bring products into compliance, not to punish organisations. We will then publish the findings of the particular case.

“You’ll see details on the VLS website of current cases and current outcomes. What we do have. If people need a little persuasion after a six-month period, we have the opportunity to work with trading standards to escalate. If somebody is not or an organisation is not in agreement with what we’re doing, It’s very rare that comes out, but it’s very good to have that in our processes now. A lot of legal dialogue took place over ten years ago to get these to be robust and solid for the market. What we’re very pleased at now is that these processes have been getting high interest within other lubricant associations outside the UK. We’re currently in dialogue with two in the Southern hemisphere and then there’s also dialogue in European organisations as well because this is seen as a credible set of processes that is helping to bring the market back into compliance.”

Looking at what products have been involved in cases, Alan said: “About 73% of the current cases that we’re referencing today are passenger car motor oils. That’s a reflection of the market.

In the late 90s, you saw the emergence of the low SAPS specifications as more treatment devices were fitted to vehicles. There was a lot of dialogue regarding diesel particulate filters, but now you’ve got gasoline engines with particulate filters as well. What would have been seen as sensitive then is quite normal today.”

All this affects the lubricants on the market, but there are consequences as Alan noted: “You’ve now got NOx reduction units and they’re sensitive to sulphur and phosphorus in the chemistry. Traditional lubricants use conventional high SAPS technology, You just can’t formulate a low SAPS product and claim the same specification as a high SAPS product. It doesn’t work. There’s a degree of education needed, and we are looking to address that.”
There are process issues within suppliers that get flagged up too: “Sometimes there can be delays within the OEM procedure itself If I’m looking up an oil and it says it’s Mercedes-Benz approved, then I’m paying more because I think I’m getting something that’s Mercedes-Benz approved. Equally if I’m a consumer and I walk into my local supermarket to buy my oil, and I look on the back and it says Mercedes-Benz approved, I will believe that. It’s quite a different message to, ‘oh, actually, it’s not quite approved’.

“Has that product been applied for? Has it been submitted? So there’s sometimes a little bit of a negotiation. This is where dialogue helps. You don’t always need to bring in Trading Standards. The named party’s reaction is always very telling.”

Education
Some cases are brought to the attention of VLS by garages. While a lubricants company needs to pay £250 to bring forward a complaint, for consumers and workshops, there is no cost, as UKLA President Mike Bewsey noted: “We’re very conscious that we’re here to represent the consumer. Garages are often looking for advice and that’s where we’re able to help. Most garages if they have concerns about a lubricant will just switch there and then. However, we have had a small number of cases go through from workshops.”

Considering the changing lubricants landscape, Alan said: “In the past we had an issue as an industry with low speed preignition (LSPI). New specifications came out pretty quickly to address that. Policing by VLS really helps to make sure that the standards are upheld.

“Education is needed, particularly as we get into ultra-low viscosity. A few years ago, we were at a 15-W50 market. Now we’re down at 0W-20 and getting lower. Some Japanese OEMs are looking at even thinner. This is fuel-economy driven.”

Summing up the role of VLS in the context of a market with a small but significant shift to EVs, with their own specific lubrication needs, dominating the landscape, Jacquie added: “The sector is in transition at the moment. A number of factors are affecting the marketplace and potentially causing a greater level of competition and that leads to an increased number of cases for VLS to investigate.”
For more information, visit: https://ukla-vls.org.uk/