An international education gap apparently exists regarding the proper application of aftermarket automatic transmission fluids (ATFs). Pouring in a faulty fluid can grind away at a transmission’s wear protection, foam control and low-temperature performance.
“If you put the wrong ATF in a vehicle, the driver will be able to tell based on the change in their shifting experience,” says Tu Lai Turner, an ATF specialist at Afton Chemical Corp. “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.”
Based in Richmond, Va., with facilities in Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam, Afton has created an ATFonATF.com website to provide insights into the importance of using only industry-licensed ATFs.
A recent survey by Liberman Research Worldwide of 200 transmission specialists on behalf of the campaign shows that nearly one in three don’t know the difference between OEM licensed and unlicensed ATFs.
“A licensed ATF ensures that a fluid meets all the specifications an OEM set for that vehicle,” Turner explains. “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.”
To understand the difference between licensed and unlicensed ATFs, an installer must first understand how an automatic transmission fluid is formulated, according to company executives. 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 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.
Checking the label
The Liberman survey also revealed that only about two-thirds (64 percent) of installers believe that 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,” says Afton marketing manager Kennon Artis. “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. This will help ensure they are using the right ATF for their customers’ vehicles and maintaining trust with the vehicle owner.”
The company says purchasing licensed ATFs offers additional advantages:
- 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 a growing number of jurisdictions in the U.S. – 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 also is important to be aware that Asian and European OEMs may not have licensing criteria in tandem with U.S. standards. Additionally, several Asian OEMs may recognize minimum requirements to be suitable, such as promulgated by the Japanese Automotive Standards Organization (JASO).
The ATFonATF program is supported by some of the automotive industry’s leading OEMs, chemical engineers, trade associations and oil companies, according to company executives, who provided additional information on the topic in response to a series of questions from Aftermarket Business World:
Q: Where can distributors, retailers and installers obtain training about fluids and transmissions?
A: There are a number of industry-wide resources that provide training and education for those who want to learn more about the industry and making informed choices about ATF usage. For instance, the American Petroleum Institute (API), the Petroleum Quality Institute of America (PQIA), the American Motorist Repair Association (AMRA/MAP), and the Automotive Oil Change Association (AOCA) all are well-known and well-respected bodies in the industry that could serve as resources.
Q: Is there an automatic transmission association that provides training? Or is it mostly done through automakers?
A: It is our understanding that any transmission fluid “training” is primarily done through the oil marketers/distributors or on the job.
Q: What are the pricing differences between certified and non-certified fluids, and what can counter people do to induce more sales of certified ATFs to both professional installers and do-it-yourself customers?
A: Pricing differentials differ according to application and brand. However, on average market pricing can differ from roughly 15 percent to 35 percent. There’s not necessarily a differentiation between “certified” and “non-certified” but more of a branded vs. unbranded. It seems that the market is still very driven by brand recognition (trust) than it is by licensing or legitimacy.
Q: What is the global perspective regarding certified and non-certified ATFs?
A: We can’t speak regarding to Europe, but they are primarily manual transmissions anyway. Asia Pacific is extremely sensitive to certified/licensed/legitimate products. It’s not just specific to ATFs, but to any product/market. Duplication (imposters) is a huge issue in China. Most consumers are willing to pay more, as they see the value in authenticity – but you just need to be able to demonstrate that.
Q: Do certain regions embrace certified ATFs more than others?
A: The world of licensed fluids is complex and sometimes confusing, which affects the degree to which aftermarket stakeholders can observe and follow licensing guidelines. Generally speaking, North America is among the simplest regions to follow licensing guidelines, since the major OEMs – GM, Ford, Chrysler and Allison – all openly publish their specifications, making it easier for installers to identify and use licensed ATFs.
Q: Is the ATF industry involved in worldwide educational outreach efforts, etc.?
A: Generally, no. The market is in dire need of education around proper ATF choices. While stakeholders from consumers to installers and service providers have been educated for decades on motor oil, tires, coolants, tires and a host of other automobile-related matters, historically there has been little to no education on ATFs. This widespread lack of understanding contributes significantly to miss-application – using the wrong ATF for a given application.
Q: Are certain types/brands/models of vehicles more prone to damage from non-certified ATFs?
A: As there are many different types of transmissions – all built very differently with different materials – some are potentially more susceptible to miss-applications than others. We do not maintain records of how transmissions perform with different fluids.
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