Lubrication and electric vehicles

Dr. Edward P. Becker | TLT Automotive Tribology February 2019

Focus switches from engine to transmission and other components.

Some scenarios predict 95% of all vehicles on the road will be electric by 2042.
© Can Stock Photo / chesky

A recent National Geographic report (1) has good news and bad news for the automotive tribologist. The good news: in the U.S. the number of privately owned vehicles will continue to rise. On the other hand, the number of internal combustion engines is projected to begin falling.

The market penetration of electric vehicles is forecasted to rise quite rapidly. Depending on the assumptions one makes regarding fuel economy and emission control requirements, an inflection point occurs in the 2022-2025 time frame. Under the most aggressive scenario, 95% of all vehicles on the road would be electric by 2042.

And that’s just in the U.S., which is only the second-largest car market in the world. Since 2009 China has been the largest market, with sales now outpacing the U.S. by more than 10 million vehicles per year (2). And while no official plan is in place, there is much speculation that China may ban internal combustion engines by 2040 (3).

Of course, there will still be millions of gasoline and diesel vehicles on the world’s roads for decades to come, and some transportation modes, such as aircraft and ocean-going vessels, are unlikely to be electrified due to weight and range limitations. Nevertheless, the engine tribologist may find limited career opportunities in the near future.

Not so, perhaps, for the transmission tribologist. While no pure electric vehicle currently uses a multispeed transmission, everyone uses some form of reduction gear. These gears are currently lubricated with traditional transmission fluid, and there is evidence that this may not be an ideal situation. Perhaps gear lubricant for electric vehicles is a growth opportunity.

Also, the rest of the vehicle will function much the same as today. This means other moving parts such as accessory motors, suspensions, wheel bearings, closures, adjustable seats, etc., all still need lubrication, ideally for the life of the vehicle. The presence of strong electric and magnetic fields, and the use of more exotic materials for motors and batteries, will drive the need for new lubricant formulations.

Manufacturing of these new components, specifically electric motors and batteries, presents new challenges for industrial lubrication as well. New materials, close tolerances and safe handling of corrosive or flammable electrolytes present opportunities for those skilled in the field of tribology.

The consumer will ultimately decide which propulsion technology prevails. Liquid-fueled internal combustion engines have long been the powerplant of choice, due to relatively low cost, long range and ease of refueling. Alternate fuels (liquefied natural gas, ethanol, biodiesel, etc.) might still reduce the environmental impact enough to give the venerable piston engine a future.

1. Available here.
2. Available here.
3. Available here.
Ed Becker is an STLE Fellow and past president. He is president of Friction & Wear Solutions, LLC, in Brighton, Mich., and can be reached through his website at