New “Smart Oil Changes” to Safeguard Environment

Published September 1, 2004

For generations, automobile technicians have advised car and truck drivers to change their engine oil as frequently as every 3,000 miles. The 3,000-mile advice, however, is designed to be precautionary and may not always be necessary. As a result, environmental advocates assert unnecessary amounts of used motor oil are spoiling the environment.

In response, American automaker General Motors recently began a campaign to stress the environmental benefits of an automobile maintenance system, which has been available for the past few years, in combating unnecessary discharges of used motor oil into the environment.

GM’s Oil Life System (GMOLS) uses an algorithm that evaluates engine speed and temperature and then informs the driver when to change the engine oil with a simple Change Oil message on the dash. By bringing vehicles in for an oil change at this time, which can exceed 5,000 or even 7,000 miles since the last oil change, drivers can double or even triple the time between oil changes when compared with the common industry recommendation of 3,000 miles.

The system thus helps protect the environment and saves consumers money.

Less Oil to Damage Landfills, Groundwater

According to automobile industry experts, oil changes can pose a significant environmental problem. The American Petroleum Institute estimates more than 640 million gallons of motor oil are sold each year, about half of which is used by do-it-yourself oil changers.

While gas stations, quick oil change shops, and car dealerships generally follow good practices and return the used oil for recycling, only about a third of do-it-yourselfers do so.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates do-it-yourself oil changes are the single largest source of water pollution in the United States. According to EPA, just one quart of improperly disposed used oil can contaminate 1 million gallons of water, enough to meet the needs of 50 people for a year. General Motors estimates hundreds of millions of gallons of used motor oil go unrecycled each year and often end up dumped on the ground, poured down storm sewers, or sent to landfills.

“This car care season, we want owners of GM vehicles not to worry about deciding when to change their engine oil because leading-edge technology will determine the right time,” said Peter Lord, executive director of GM Service Operations. “There’s also an extra level of comfort in knowing that this also can help tackle a growing environmental problem.”

Improving Other Maintenance

GMOLS is installed in about 95 percent of the vehicles GM produces today and on a wide variety of models since the mid-1990s. Roughly 20 million vehicles on the road today are equipped with GMOLS. Together, these vehicles can help save an estimated 120 million gallons of oil per year if consumers follow the Change Oil recommendation. GM emphasizes the engine oil and filter must be changed at least once a year even if the GMOLS indicator does not come on.

In addition to alerting automobile owners of the need to change their oil, the system places vehicles on a more simplified and reliable maintenance plan. Dealers will be able to use the oil change dates as designated points to offer other maintenance such as tire rotation, visual inspections of the fluid levels and brakes, and inspection of the suspension, steering, and transmission.

“Simplified Maintenance Schedules are a major convenience to drivers because it takes the guesswork out of when to change oil and it eliminates the need to make decisions regarding routine maintenance,” Lord said. “Basically, when the light comes on you bring the vehicle in for maintenance and the technician can perform an oil change along with other necessary maintenance items such as checking belts, rotating tires, and changing the air filter.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment and Climate News.