Sitting on the side-line for the last 15 years observing the OEM versus the aftermarket ATF conflict, (about where you source and how you use ATF) has lead me to believe the battle has taken a new direction recently. OEM’s have had their knickers in a bunch for years because the transmission aftermarket and dedicated service shops have insisted on making their own decisions about what and how to meet the needs of the different OEM applications without having to resort to OEM sourced lubricants or parts. Their attempts to enforce consumer compliance by denying warranties were in part stymied by the Federal Magnusson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975. Enforcement of this Act has been sporadic and somewhat ineffective (FTC issued warnings this year to multiple automotive OEM’s to stop the denial of warranty based on exclusive use of products supplied by them) but still provides protection if you provide “equivalent” service solutions. That’s all good and necessary, but things have taken a new direction recently with the participation of a group providing “watch dog” type revelations about lubricants (engine oil and ATF) bought and examined for fluid quality and label accuracy. This group of “watch dogs” uses an OEM influenced examination of the label with a close eye to specific applications on the label with very little consideration given to the concept of “equivalency” or freedom of choice. When they see anything they do not like, (more precisely not in alignment with OE provided guidelines) they publicly chastise the company involved and try to discredit them. This occurred recently and the issue I have was concerning the condemnation of a very good ATF, not because the fluid was bad, but because they didn’t like the applications listed on the label. Initially it all sounds like a good thing, none of us want to see inferior products that will damage a transmission being sold to an unaware public. As far as the label goes you do see products with vague claims or questionable benefits and an inclusiveness of applications that is often not possible. These are things that could be held to a higher standard and states are starting to require labels meet more rigorous standards for accuracy, applications and performance claims. It all sounds good until you come to the conclusion that the OEM’s are making the decisions about applications and what is specifically required by them, bypassing the fact (this is my problem with the “watch dog” making decisions based on OEM input only) that many of us in this business do not find the OEM selected fluids to meet our needs. Many would claim that the service industry is obsessed with profit and wants to use cheaper solutions that do not meet the “equivalency requirements” of the OEM transmissions. For some I am sure that is true, but not for members of the transmission aftermarket service community I am in contact with every day. We seek products that serve the needs of the customer, provide value and most importantly do not cause problems that result in financial loss to us or our customers. Many facilities use products for service that exceed the performance requirements of the OEM fluids, better meet the needs of the customer and their service cycle but are still looked upon by the OEM dealerships as “improper fluid”. I know this for a fact because I have seen multiple examples when the dealership “condemned” a transmission because they noticed the unit was serviced by an outside facility and they did not use OEM fluid. These are the same corporate policies that tell you the transmission fluid is “fill for life”. They give you a driveline warranty for 100,000 miles and imply the fluid in the transmission does not need changing.
Then you read the warranty and it says the 100,000-mile service interval is only applicable if you use your vehicle in “normal service”. If you don’t and you use your vehicle for “severe service”, the service interval is cut in half to 50,000-miles. What constitutes severe service you ask? The way most of us use our vehicles, we do freeway driving, tow things, commute with full cars, drive when it’s over 100°F or -10°F, drive off-road, drive when it’s dusty, I could keep going but you get the idea. It’s how most of us use our vehicles on a day to day basis. When you couple this with transmission fluids that get thinner with each new corporate fluid in the name of efficiency (not durability) it’s little wonder those of us in the know make our own decisions about service intervals and fluid type based on real world needs not the corporate need for new sources of revenue when your transmission fails because you never serviced it based on their advice. Back to my original beef. The move to have states that regulate labels require the specific OE application on the label instead of more mindful information like viscosity at 100°C. or base oil type or friction modification or cold weather performance. Meaningful information that allows decisions to be made based on physical properties, performance expectations and real-world experience. This move is bowing to the OEM’s and “the watch-dogs” assume we, as consumers or service providers, lack the sophistication and education to select what we need, as opposed to what they want us to buy (from them if possible). Sounds like a bold statement until you take a close look at their perceived problem (transmission failures based on improper fluid used) and find out, (in the real world of the automotive aftermarket) it’s not a problem at all. Last year at hearings about labeling for lubricants for the state of California presentation of statistics about automatic transmission failures based on cause indicted less than 1% of all failed automatic transmissions resulted from “improper fluid”. Not bad for an industry that that’s been basing their service fluids on suitability and value. Not that there are no problems. The arrival of three different types of automatic transmissions, the traditional step automatic, CVT automatic and the DCT automatic gearbox have complicated things a bit more. The vehicle transmission service challenges now happening from technology and changing power sources will still need service. We will continue to select service solutions based on value, efficiency, type of service and durability expectations using proper principals of lubrication based on science, engineering and experience not OEM marketing hype or misinformed regulators. I wish they could figure that out. Service providers and consumers would be better off and the “watch dogs” could be looking at real data not OEM “recommendations”.