Twenty Years of Techron Yield Unclear Results
About 20 miles north of San Francisco, in the city of Richmond, Chevron has built one of the most advanced fuel research centers in the world. One building resembles a car hospital, where engines are attached to dozens of tubes and electronics that measure how they perform using different fluids. In another building, chemists study gasoline samples from all over the world. In a third, researchers dissect engine parts clogged with gunk. Roughly 1,600 people scurry about the complex, one-quarter of them with Ph.D.s. Many of these people have dedicated their lives to perfecting Techron, a detergent for gas that Chevron has been working on for more than 30 years.
Since 1995, the engine-cleaning additive in Chevron’s gas has been the company’s main sales pitch to consumers. In its familiar TV spots, animated cars attest that Techron makes them feel good. There’s little question that advanced science has gone into developing the fuel additive. The question is whether the obsession with Techron is paying off for the company or for consumers. After almost 20 years, drivers still don’t really know what the product is; anyway, they tend to buy gas based on price, not technology. And these days, it’s unclear whether Techron’s proprietary molecule is better than those used by other fuel makers, or whether modern cars suffer many of the problems Techron purports to fix. “Most fuels have these additives, and they all seem to be doing the job,” says Brandt Lucido, owner of One Stop Automotive, a repair shop in Dallas. To this argument, Chevron responds with a stock answer. “Techron is unsurpassed,” says Don Walker, general manager of the brand group at Chevron. “We think our claim is pretty strong.”
The need for something like Techron emerged in the mid-1970s, when U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations started to phase out the sale of leaded gasoline. While the policy reduced emissions, it posed problems for car and fuel makers. Lead aided the combustion process and kept exhaust valves lubricated; the use of unleaded fuels left different kinds of deposits in the engine. Makers of fuel and additives began looking for ways to fix that without side effects.
In 1980, Chevron says, it had a breakthrough with polyetheramine, a blend of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen. The nitrogen bonded to engines’ carbon deposits, while the rest of the molecule helped remove the gunk and burn it off during combustion. The company says it’s regularly improved the formula in the years since. In 1995, the last year anyone in the U.S. could legally sell leaded gas, Chevron’s marketers decided to make polyetheramine a star, using it to try to humanize the company—which posted $220 billion in revenue and $21 billion in profit last year—by connecting more directly with consumers. In came the name Techron and the ads with anthropomorphic cars, from Sam Sedan and Wendy Wagon to Moe Muscle and Victor E. Van. Until 2011, Chevron sold toy versions of the vehicles at its gas stations. “For an oil company, it was a huge step out,” Walker says. “And it gave the consumer something they could relate to—a clean engine is a happy engine.”
Chevron puts Techron in all of its gas and estimates that four to five tanks’ worth will start to clean out an engine’s insides. It also sells a concentrated version designed to be poured into a tank as a quick fix. The company cites variability in engines and driving conditions to explain why it won’t quantify the effects. “If we state a number and you don’t get that, then you’re an unhappy customer,” says Peter Fuentes-Afflick, a senior staff engineer.
Major automakers, including General Motors, Toyota Motor, and BMW, sponsor Top Tier, a program to certify that gas contains higher levels of cleaning agents than the government requires. Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, Valero, and most common brands have met these higher standards. “It’s been documented through independent tests that the Top Tier gas is a whole lot better in terms of cleaning up the engine,” says Gary Pipenger, vice president of fuel analyst Research Laboratories. “What drives people like me crazy is the marketing fluff that follows from there.”
Newer engines, with their more precise mechanics, have less tolerance for dirt and deposits than their predecessors, Pipenger says. However, fuel quality has risen so much industrywide, because of additives and other reasons, he says, that it’s unclear Techron still provides a significant advantage over gas from Chevron’s rivals: “I don’t think they have the data to support it.” It’s been years since mechanics regularly dealt with some problems that Techron’s ads say it fixes, such as engine knock. “Back in the old days, you would definitely hear a clattering or a pinging with some cars or find gummed up fuel injectors,” says One Stop’s Lucido. “I just don’t run into those problems much anymore.”
Peter Sealey, the former chief marketing officer at Coca-Cola, believes in Techron—up to a point. He’s a car enthusiast who owns a Rolls-Royce, BMW, Mercedes, Fiat, SmartCar, and Tesla, and he says, “I buy only Chevron, because it’s a superior product.” But the effectiveness of the company’s decades-long push for Techron doesn’t justify its massive investment, he says: “It’s a campaign for car nuts. To me, the amount of money they are spending on this is not a wise marketing decision.”
Chevron says its Richmond facilities support research into a wide range of the company’s century worth of chemical breakthroughs. Richard Cherpeck, a staff chemist who’s studied Techron almost since its creation, spends most of his time running computer simulations on different molecules, searching for ways to incrementally improve the engine detergent. He becomes downright giddy when grasping a vial of Techron, draping a 3-foot molecular model of it over himself like a pet snake, or recounting the 2005 discovery of a better bonding agent. “The first time we ran a test with it, the engine valve came back so clean,” he says. “It was like, holy cow!”
The research helps Chevron protect its intellectual property. Whenever Cherpeck and his comrades tweak the Techron formula, the company can score a fresh patent and extend its legal protection of the additive. Walker, the general manager, says Chevron won’t let up on its marketing. It’s less important that consumers know exactly what Techron is than that they associate Chevron with something vaguely positive. “We have been incredibly consistent with our message and don’t chase other things,” Walker says. And whether or not the product is better than Exxon’s version, Sealey says he sees one result at his vacation home in Mendocino, Calif. “My next-door neighbor is the former head of marketing at Chevron,” says Sealey. “The license plate on his Bentley reads TECHRON.”