Licensed ATFs vs. unlicensed ATFs: the difference could cost credibility and customers

Nov. 16, 2015
A recent survey by Liberman Research Worldwide of 200 transmission specialists on behalf of ATFonATF.com shows that nearly one in three (30 percent) don’t know the difference between OEM licensed and unlicensed ATFs.

Why should automatic transmission fluid (ATF) installers know the difference between licensed ATFs and unlicensed ATFs? Because it could mean the difference between keeping a customer happy or costing that customer a great deal of money. That bad experience could also affect the shop’s reputation in the community through negative word of mouth and perhaps cost the shop that customer’s business in the future. 

A recent survey by Liberman Research Worldwide of 200 transmission specialists on behalf of ATFonATF.com shows that nearly one in three (30 percent) don’t know the difference between OEM licensed and unlicensed ATFs.

“If you put the wrong ATF in a vehicle, the driver will be able to tell based on the change in their shifting experience,” said Tu Lai Turner, Customer Technical Service - ATF, Afton Chemical. “At best, the installer will have to perform the transmission service all over again. But over time, putting the incorrect or unlicensed ATF into a transmission can shorten its life through increased wear and tear and the glazing of the clutch plates.” 

To understand the difference between licensed and unlicensed ATFs, an installer must first understand how an automatic transmission fluid is formulated. There are two main components in an ATF, base oil and additives. Compared to engine oils, the ATF additive component is far more complex. In an ATF, there is a need for the formula to be both slippery (for the transmission gears) and sticky, especially for the friction plates. The ATF additive is where the “magic happens.” That’s where the mix of anti-oxidants, dispersants, friction modifiers, detergents and anti-wear agents are added to create a specific ATF formula. 

The ATF licensing process is an important way to ensure quality ATFs are in the market.  “A licensed ATF ensures that a fluid meets all the specifications an OEM set for that vehicle,” said Turner. “In order to obtain a license, the ATF must pass a battery of rigorous performance tests. These tests are set by the OEM and performed by a third-party testing facility. If the facility and OEM approve the ATF as licensed, the oil company is required to display the OEM logo/trademark and license number on the label of the product. This proves to both installers and customers that the ATF is licensed for use in that vehicle.”

The survey also revealed that only two-thirds (64 percent) of installers think using unlicensed ATFs can damage a transmission system.

“The transmission is one of the most costly systems in a vehicle to repair and/or replace. Installers should ask their ATF distributor to see the OEM logo/trademark and license number before committing to use an ATF for specific models at their service centers,” said Kennon Artis, marketing manager, Afton Chemical. “This will help ensure they are using the right ATF for their customers’ vehicles and maintaining trust with the vehicle owner.” 

Using licensed ATFs offers a host of additional advantages to stakeholders: 

  • An ATF carrying an OEM license helps ensure the best transmission performance based on well-considered and tested specifications. 
  • Since the licensing process is regulated by OEMs, there is strict control against disreputable blending practices.  These practices are weeded out of the distribution chain.  This is especially important as the growing number of states – such as California –are cracking down on poor quality products being passed off as high quality. 
  • An OEM-licensed ATF is one measure of protection for the service provider in the event challenges arise and service providers’ practices are called into question.

It’s also important to be aware that Asian and European OEMs may not have licensing criteria like the ones in the United States.  Additionally, several Asian OEMs may recognize minimum requirements to be suitable, such as the Japanese Automotive Standards Organization (JASO) standard.

The ATFonATF program is supported by some of the automotive industry’s leading OEMs, chemical engineers, industry trade associations and oil companies. The campaign is reinforced by trade advertising and public relations efforts promoting ATFonATF.com to installers and other industry audiences.

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