Auto Service World
Feature   June 1, 2010   by Auto Service World

Making More From Less

As drivers look to reduce fuel consumption, progressive aftermarket players should see opportunity.;

There is a growing concern among the driving public that they not only should choose vehicles that will minimize their fuel bill, but also decide how much, how often, and how they will drive.

This may present both a challenge and an opportunity for the automotive aftermarket.

A short two years ago, prices at the pump shot up, and the average kilometres–and the maintenance priorities of the consumer–screeched to a halt.

According to Frost & Sullivan research analyst Matt Scruggs, this had a number of effects.

“High gas prices created a market shock in the automobile industry, leading to dramatic sales declines and contributing to the recent economic recession. A small mercy of this same recession is a reduction in demand for crude oil in western countries, leading to low and relatively stable prices, and allowing the U.S. economy to stagger to its feet without another blow from the commodities sector. However, with the economy stabilizing and consumption still growing in developing nations like China and India, the price of crude oil is expected to rise continuously throughout the next few years. The rising fuel prices of the future and a restrained new vehicle market will influence consumer driving behaviour, and thus aftermarket replacement products, as consumers attempt to maximize fuel efficiency with conventionally powered vehicles.”

What Scruggs predicts is a change in driving habits, to fewer miles and more fuel-efficient driving habits.

“Analysis of several emerging trends suggests that vehicle owners are likely to experience the eventual rise in fuel prices while driving their current vehicle. The average vehicle owner in North America is keeping his vehicle for a longer time period and driving fewer miles annually. These patterns indicate little movement in the automotive sector, while energy costs will rise sharply; the price of oil, currently trading at $77/bbl, is expected to break $100/bbl later this year.

“In an effort to reduce vehicle operating expenses, a large percentage of vehicle owners are likely to modify driving and maintenance behaviour to save fuel. Many of these tactics emerged in late 2008, when high gas prices significantly impacted vehicle operating costs.”

While his comments single out the U.S. market, it is not hard to see similar effects taking hold in Canada.

Potential Changes In Maintenance Behaviour

More frequent oil changes with lightweight oil

This measure is designed to reduce internal friction in the engine. While the actual benefit of this practice on fuel economy is extremely small, it is a strategy that consumers are likely to turn to in the future. A large number of vehicles older than five years old typically visit an independent repair facility, or IRF, for routine maintenance. Based on patterns observed in late 2008, these locations are likely to emphasize the use of lightweight oil and more frequent oil changes.

Low rolling-resistance tires become popular replacements

Low rolling-resistance tires are currently installed predominantly at the OE level, though many manufacturers are beginning to offer them in the aftermarket. These tires are expected to increase in popularity in the next few years, as they can offer a 2% to 6% improvement in fuel efficiency, albeit at the expense, in some cases, of traction or comfort.

Tire replacements in general will be affected in a few different ways. A very small group of consumers is likely to practice tire over-inflation to further reduce rolling resistance and increase economy. This is likely to reduce tire life by forcing the tire to wear unevenly. However, the majority of consumers interested in gaining fuel economy will ensure tires are inflated at the proper level, which may lead to an increase in tire life and a corresponding decrease in repair revenue.

Potential Changes In Driving Behaviour

Less aggressive acceleration and braking

Attempting to maintain a steady speed to reduce fuel consumption will reduce the wear on a vehicle’s brake friction elements and rotors or drums, while possibly increasing spark plug replacements. A measurable reduction in brake jobs may result from the reduction in aggressive brake use, especially in urban areas where stop-and-go traffic predominates. Vehicles equipped with manual transmissions may also utilize engine braking to perform gradual speed adjustments, though this segment of the vehicle population is small and diminishing each year, and so does not present a threat.

When vehicles avoid brisk acceleration, spark plugs may not be able to heat to a self-cleaning temperature, allowing carbon deposits to build up and foul the plugs. Older vehicles are especially prone to this, as oil may be pulled into the combustion chamber through worn valve guides and gaskets due to the low intake manifold pressures that result from partially closed throttle bodies.

More engine stops/starts

Reducing idle time by shutting off and re-starting the engine, as needed, is another tactic used to save fuel. As conventional vehicles do not have a starting system designed for this use, increased wear on the vehicle’s starter, battery, and alternator is likely to occur, with a corresponding increase in replacement rates for these parts.

The impact of these practices on the aftermarket has yet to be quantified, though any such changes in consumer driving behaviour are extremely important for aftermarket participants to make note of.

As gas prices rise, consumer behaviour is certain to change, and the aftermarket must respond appropriately.

In essence, drivers concerned about the cost of fuel may drive less, but be far more conscientious about the impact that maintenance can have on improving usage even at reduced levels. Consumers may want to use the least amount of fuel possible, not just less.

Aftermarket players who can offer drivers ways to accomplish this may build their own green image with consumers, and their accountants.


Market Opportunity

In addition to the market opportunities noted in the main article, the implied opportunity for additional maintenance work–or at least diagnostic work–should focus on determining the health of a vehicle’s ignition system and emission system components.

Accurate diagnosis of a problem with either of these systems can lead to maintenance that can improve a vehicle’s efficiency and fuel mileage, while reducing its emissions.

According to Car Care Canada, a proper tune-up can improve fuel consumption by an average of 4%. Fixing a serious maintenance problem, such as a faulty oxygen sensor, can improve fuel consumption by as much as 40%.

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