Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Jackass Award - Dell Printers

Dell 1250c colour laser printer - Photo borrowed from www.archiwum.allegro.pl

Over the years I've owned and disposed of - properly, I might add - enough dot matrix, inkjet, and laser printers to have nearly lost count. With the dot matrix printers, obsolescence was what finally killed them, though I did make it through several ribbons with my old Citizen before it finally got retired.

I was once given an old Hewlett-Packard LaserJet+, probably a first or second generation machine that weighed as much as a tank and was nearly as durable, sucking enough power that the lights in my computer room dimmed noticeably when it spooled up, creating this unmistakeable aura of ozone as it hummed, throbbed, clunked, and eventually theatrically discharged each sheet of paper. Already having occasional paper feed issues, its imaging drum finally succumbed to age, and the cost of repairing it made about as much sense as body-off restoring a Ford Festiva, so it was walked behind the barn and mercifully shot.

Since that time, every printer that has found its way into The Basement Of No Return or actually made it to the electronic recycler has gone that way because it ran out of ink or toner. I don't know what that stuff is made of, but forget splashing around the $3000 bottle of Richard Hennessey Cognac - really rich people pour out inkjet ink and sprinkle some toner on it.

Lexmark got more than enough of my money with its fussy, failure-prone inkjet printers (I didn't learn the first time), whose cartridge-mounted inkjet tips clogged or dried out with alarming regularity, giving both printers the overall reliability of a high-mileage Trabant. Not that the apparent thimble-full of ink in each $70+ cartridge lasted long anyways. A later Canon scanner/printer proved to have better inkjet nozzles, but just as large and expensive an appetite for ink. My last inkjet, it lives on as a flatbed scanner.

Samsung actually makes really good laser printers, and at around $100 for B&W, not quite double that on-sale for equally good colour models, they're a deal. But - and you knew this was coming - like most new printers, they ship with "starter" size toner cartridges. Replacing them with a real one costs slightly more than the printer did new (B&W), or quite a bit more than the printer did new, in the case of the colour machines, which hold four of these apparently unobtanium-filled cartridges.

Look closely: This is a "Ship-With" size cartridge. Dell's by no means alone in using this bait-and-switch scam. Just ship the damn printer with a full-size cartridge! I'll pay more upfront. Really.
Commercial-grade machines cost more new, and sometimes even ship with real toner cartridges. Replacing the toner cartridge makes some sense when the B&W printer in question costs more than $250. Credit where credit is due: They do last - the Dell machine my workplace uses has printed bales of paper, consuming several toner cartridges in the process, lives in a hellish environment of dust and temperature fluctuations, and yet still works perfectly. Though I've personally bought a pair of Samsungs (money talks!), I've been a proponent of Dell printers for commercial use based on the longevity and reliability of this and the previous office printer, whose automatic paper feed stopped working properly after what would be several lifetimes for many lesser printers.

Here's the thing. In every case, without exception, all of these printers all continued to work up to and past the point where their ink or toner ran out, even our business machines (the old Dell would still work if fed paper manually). Citizen, Lexmark, Canon, Dell, HP - it doesn't matter. Witness my current Samsung (seen below), which has been telling me it's out of every toner colour for several months now, yet keeps on printing the few pages a month that I ask of it.

No, seriously, I'm out of toner. Hello? Guys? Oh, fine then. I'll keep working.

Eventually, the print quality will go away, or the print itself will become patchy or faded, and then I'll know it's time to pony up or pitch out.

Not so with the Dell 1250c colour laser printer. Nope. We use this on the alignment rack at work to print out sheets with before and after readings for our customers. It also gets used to print out diagnostic flow charts and wiring diagrams (where the colour is very helpful). To be fair, it's been warning us that it's getting low for a little while now, and we probably should have got a new cartridge in for stock. Like anyone ever does that.

This past Friday afternoon it decided that it was out of black toner. Never mind that the last page it printed was absolutely perfect - not a flaw, fade, or spot to be seen. No. It was out of toner RIGHTNOWDAMMIT and that was that. No way to clear the message or reset it. Put in toner or No Print For You!

So what you're trying to tell me is that you're out of toner? It "need" to be replaced now!
I would bet $100 that there's enough toner left to print another 50 sheets. We'll never know, as it can't be fooled into going that extra mile. That sucks for the environment, sure (wasted toner, added landfill sooner), but it really sucks for the consumer, who gets an immediate cease in printing, rather than the hey-I'm-really-not-kidding heads-up of diminishing print quality as incentive to actually buy - or in Dell's case, order - a new cartridge. Oh, and that consumer also gets ripped off however many printable pages actually remained in the original toner cartridges, as I'm sure the other three will behave the same.

This was somewhat of a pain in the ass for me, as the particular alignment I'd just completed was for a body shop, and they absolutely have to have a copy of the spec sheet for their customers and the insurance companies they deal with.

Consequently, I had to pull the colour laser printer out of the cabinet, drag the big monochrome laser printer/anvil out of the office, hook it up, discover that this computer doesn't have the right drivers, and isn't connected to the internet to download them, go into the office to search for and download the drivers onto a USB drive, install the new drivers in the shop computer, uninstall the colour printer so that our alignment software would recognize and use the B&W printer, print the one F'ing page that I needed printed, unhook the office printer, reinstall the now-paperweight of a colour printer, and finally uninstall the B&W printer, so that when my boss replaces the toner cartridge in the colour machine, the alignment software will recognize and use that printer again. Not that I was at all annoyed by the process. Thank you, Dell, and by "Thank", I don't actually mean "Thank".

Sadly, I was going to replace my two essentially out of toner lasers soon, possibly with at least one Dell machine, but I'm not so sure now. I'm actually feeling a pang of regret for recommending Dell machines to a good friend who's just starting up his new business, despite the fact that I expect his printers to work and last well.

Therefore, for installing a purely software-created jackpot of an inconvenience with no possible positive other than to line your pockets just that little bit sooner - and for making me feel bad - I'm awarding you, Dell, with a well-deserved Jackass Award.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Learning Something New

2006 Ford Escape 3.0L

This was something I'd never seen before. The 2006 Ford Escape V6 seen above belonged to a new customer, and it had made it to our shop under its own power, but just barely, running on at most 4 of its 6 cylinders. Truthfully, I'm amazed it did make it, because it took several attempts to reverse it up a slight incline to get it out of its parking spot and bring it in.

Like virtually all modern gasoline powered vehicles, this particular model uses individual coils for each cylinder, located immediately above the spark plugs, a design known as "coil on plug" (COP). Ford's COP systems seem to be more failure prone than most, though everyone has these things fail from time to time.

So the coil failures were nothing new. This truck had codes for the control circuits on two of the affected coils, which of course would be on the rear bank of cylinders, necessitating removal of the upper intake manifold or plenum.

Upper intake manifold removal is necessary to access the rear 3 coils and plugs.

The process is actually not as bad as it looks. I'd be happy if they were all this easy. Of course, I'd be happier if I didn't have to remove it at all, but hey, I'll take what I can get; Ford making something easy is a rarity.

That can't be good!

As you can see from the heavily-fouled condition of the spark plugs (above), this had been going on for quite a while. Seeing this, we readied the customer for the possibility that he had actually injured the motor, or at the very least, the rear catalytic converter, by continuing to drive it with the dead coils.

Here's where it gets interesting: as part of the diagnostics, prior to removing the upper intake, I'd already checked to see if our two dead coils were being triggered by the PCM (powertrain control module) - you can see it in the second picture; it's the box in the firewall with the three square plastic connectors on it. It wasn't firing them, though that could have been because the circuits or coils themselves were bad, so the PCM was protecting itself. Substituting a noid light (a circuit tester) eliminates that, and it revealed that the PCM simply wasn't triggering them, so the computer itself was bad.

While it's easy to replace - two bolts, three plugs! - a PCM for this vehicle is around $1000, and it then has to be programmed, which is another roughly $150. Ford has a bulletin that states that it will not warranty the new PCM unless all six coils are replaced. Apparently the coils kill the PCM - I've never heard of that happening before. Normally the internal circuitry in a PCM is robust enough that it will tolerate all kinds of punishment. A quick Google search suggested that this is not all that unusual in these vehicles. Who knew?

As it turns out, there's a firm in Toronto that will repair the PCM for a few hundred dollars, replacing the burnt-out coil drivers on the circuit board. This also negates the need for programming, since the computer is already programmed, and that part of it is OK. You just have to ship it out and wait a week or so for it to come back. In this case, time saves money.


Six new plugs and six new coils, ready to go... (Note Ford's unusual cylinder numbering system)

This repair worked out. Six plugs, six coils, and a repaired PCM later, this Escape ran fine, and it appears - in the sort term at least - that both the engine and the catalytic survived their ordeal.

Credit Where Credit is Due

2010 Acura MDX

It might seem at times as if I'm unduly harsh on the automakers, constantly pointing out their shortcomings, oversights, and failures. Perhaps, though I'm equally happy to call attention to positive attributes when they present themselves.

To that end, allow me to introduce the 2010 Acura MDX seen above. Built on Honda's large utility platform (shared by the Acura ZDX, Honda Pilot, Honda Ridgeline, and Honda Odyssey minivan), this particular "YD2" version was produced for the 2007 to 2013 model years, and I'd expect the earlier and current versions to be similar.

It's not that these are perfect - another customer of mine had a 2008 model that needed all 4 of its fancy magneto-rheological shocks/struts replaced (leaking/failed) - a costly enough proposition on its own that it got traded in, rather than tackle that and some other upcoming maintenance/repairs.

What deserves mention in the MDX is ease of service of the driveline's fluids.

Fluid changes are a regular maintenance item, regardless of whether your vehicle's literature suggests that the transmission is "sealed for life" and the intervals for the differential and transfer case are either not provided at all or in the 100,000+ km range. Look closer at the severe service schedule for a more realistic view.

In some vehicles, fluid changes are a major pain. Yes, domestic automakers, I'm looking at you. Dropping a fluid-filled pan counts as a major pain - it's extremely rare for there to be a drain bolt, let alone one that's not completely seized in place and/or equipped with a fastener whose head is made of a material only marginally more robust than sun-softened butter. It's a fantastic opportunity to bask in the joy of spreading used transmission fluid all over the floor and - often as not - yourself while trying to balance a shallow, fluid-filled pan as you undo the last one or two fasteners and lower it into the drain bucket.

2001 Chevrolet Impala (3.8) engine bay from below - a typical domestic setup. That silver pan holds about 4 litres of fluid - think you can undo and lower that without spilling it?

In every Honda product I've ever seen (not counting the US-only Passport, which was a rebadged Isuzu Rodeo; I worked on one once), automatic transmission fluid is drained by undoing a single drain bolt.

The MDX's automatic transmission fluid drain bolt...
In most recent Hondas, the head of this bolt even incorporates a 3/8" square drive that any standard ratchet or extension fits into. Visually different from the other fasteners, there's no mistaking its purpose.

...in action.

If there's criticism to be leveled here, it's that some fluid ends up on the crossmember that runs below the transmission. I can live with that. However there's no way to change the filter (an internal screen), which isn't ideal, nor is the fact that only about 3-3.5 litres of the approximately 10 litres of fluid this thing holds get changed this way. Short of disconnecting a cooler line and using a fluid exchange machine, you won't get all of the fluid out of any conventional automatic during a service, so it will have to suffice.

Where Honda cements its victory here is in how the fluid gets replenished. Others require you to refill through the dipstick - a sometimes tedious process that's only better than the alternative of no dipstick. In older Hyundai/Kia automatics, you've got to add the fluid s-l-o-w-l-y or it burps back out the dipstick. Honda's solution in this application?

Acura MDX automatic transmission fill bolt.

How about a nice big top-mounted bolt marked "ATF"? A long funnel fits in beautifully, and with a large hole, it'll take fluid as fast as you can pour it in. Access could be slightly easier, but in the grand scheme of things, this is heaven. I will concede that the actual dipstick, which is mounted low down on the front, could be a bit easier to reach.

That's not where the thoughtfulness ends, though. There's still a transfer unit (splits power from the transmission and sends it rearward) and a rear differential, which on the MDX, also contains the clutches that control rear torque bias and SH-AWD power application.

Acura MDX Power Transfer Unit - see the drain and fill plugs?

These power take-off units normally don't contain very much fluid, so what fluid is there leads a harsh life. In the 1st-generation Nissan Murano, they're also known to leak, followed shortly by failure. Unfortunately, Nissan has chosen to make it terribly awkward to check, let alone fill, the transfer unit. They could stand to learn from Honda in this instance. Honda's drain and fill are both nice and obvious and accessible. The required fluid type (hypoid gear oil) is even cast into the housing next to the fill bolt. Nice!

How about the rear differential?

Acura MDX rear differential. More of the same. See the wiring for the clutch pack actuators?

Just what you'd expect, if you were working your way back from doing the other two services. A clearly marked fill bolt ("ATF"), and an obvious drain bolt. Access is trickier here because the rear crossmember and spare tire are right behind the diff, and the floor above makes the use of a funnel impossible, but there is a nice window cut into the crossmember immediately behind the fill plug, so a suction gun or the pressurized fill device of your choosing can get a clean, straight shot into the hole to refill it.

I have to ask myself, how much does it add in cost to cast lettering into the housings, or punch an extra opening into the rear crossmember to facilitate servicing? Probably nothing, or close to nothing. As for designing these components and those around them to make them accessible, how much extra would that cost? As a consumer, the time it takes to do these maintenance procedures does cost you. Would you pay an extra $100 or even an extra $500 up front if you knew that down the road you'd get that and more back in reduced labour? At least when it comes to these items, Honda apparently thinks you would. Good on 'em. Credit where credit is due.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Jackass Award - Canadian Tire

Canadian Tire is a Canadian icon

Oh Canadian Tire. You are a Canadian Institution, an Icon of Canadiana, a part of the psyche of the vast majority of this country's people. Perhaps that is why I feel so betrayed by some of your corporate decisions, as of late.

No, It's not incorporating Mark's Work Wearhouse into your retail space. That actually makes some sense, though I don't naturally tend to think of my local CTC store when I need clothing (did buy a nice winter coat for work there, though!).

It's not even the fact that you lock all of the hand tools away in display cases, behind layered racks where I can't actually see or browse what you have, or that you recently did away with the little call buttons at the end of some aisles that (potentially) might summon one of your employees - who seem to be oddly hard to find at the times when you'd really like one - no, it's not even that.

Hmm. I wonder what's behind the first layer of rack?

It's your tools. Much as is the case with Sears in the United States (yet oddly, not so much here - likely due to your successes on this side of the border), Canadian Tire has long been known by handyman and homeowner alike as a source for decent quality tools. While you've often offered cheaper, lower quality tools (and that's fine; they have their place), you've provided Canadians with your Mastercraft brand of tools for decades, backing them up with the reassurance of a lifetime warranty. Okay, things got a bit confusing a while back when you brought out a "Professional" line of Mastercraft sockets and hand tools (their inferred better quality suggested non-Professional were junk, yet they had the same warranty), however we adapted and carried on. Then you changed them to "Maximum", just to increase our confusion. Does that make the other Mastercraft tools Minimum? I digress.

You'd best believe that warranty sells tools.

While some might joke about "Crappy Tire" tools, I've been quite comfortably making a living fixing cars for nearly 20 years using Mastercraft tools.

Mostly Mastercraft...
...as are these. In a Mastercraft toolbox.

When I got started in the auto repair business, apprentices were not given any kind of tax breaks or incentives for tools as they are now, putting an extra crimp in my budget, so I bought my basics at Canadian Tire - right down to the 3 piece toolbox they're still stored in (and overflowing out of). Yes, I did spend just over $3000 on Snap-on tools at that time as well, which resulted in a disappointingly small pile, but the majority of my hand tools, both at home - where I have a less complete, redundant set - and at work, bear the Mastercraft name. There have been lots more added in the two decades that have followed. Imagine the Canadian Tire money I've earned... ... and the Brian Early money that Canadian Tire has received in exchange.

So what has me upset enough to want to hand you a Jackass Award? Well, CTC, my friend, you seem to have lost your way recently. First off - what's with the Stanley FatMax stuff? Why are you selling (and supporting, as it has a warranty too) a competing product to your home brand? It's not like Mastercraft and Mastercraft Maximum weren't already causing consumer confusion.

This whole diversification of your product range seems to be diluting the very essence of what defines your tools - and your brand as a whole. This is where my bugbear lies, and the reason I'm awarding you my booby prize. You no longer carry enough of the tools that you've sold, often in a set, but also individually, to be able to readily honour your warranty.

Used to be that I'd walk into my local Canadian Tire with my broken tool - usually a socket, as they tend to live a hard life - and I'd walk back out again with a replacement.

Look closely at the 9 o'clock position. See how the sides don't line up? This socket has split under load.

Not any more. My local store is the largest in the region. It did not have a replacement for this broken socket. Understandable if it was some obscure inverted torx or some other oddball; it is not.

Mastercraft for the win! Or not. (3/8" drive 14mm universal socket) I'm not even upset that it broke.

This is a 3/8" drive by 14 mm universal ("flex") socket. Second perhaps to Imperial-sized universals and straight sockets, about as common as you'll find in a mechanic's tool box. My local store had to special order one in, an easy enough process to initiate, but why? If I wanted to wait three days to a week to replace my socket, I could just buy a Snap-on or Mac or Matco, because their trucks come around roughly weekly, and will probably have several of these in stock. Sure, they cost more, but if I was in a real bind without it, I could call my tool rep and they'd likely swing by same-day to bail me out.

I'm not at all upset that it broke. Hell, I was tugging on it pretty earnestly when it finally rounded the corroded old fastener it was hanging on and split down the fluke. Any tool can fail, particularly when being worked hard and worked regularly. I recognize the cost advantage that Mastercraft tools have over those professional name-brand competitors, and I'm realistic in my expectations, even though I've been very pleasantly surprised over the years by just how well my Mastercraft stuff has lasted. In applications where my luck has not been so good, or where reliability or function is critical, I'll buy the pro-grade equipment (you can see it intermingled in my tool box drawer photos above).

What finally pushed me over the edge, compelling me to write a War and Peace-style Epic on Canadian Tire Corporation and Mastercraft tools was a twofold slight:

- Not being able to conveniently exchange what I felt was a common enough tool that it should be in stock, and not require ordering in. That is annoying, and negates one of the major benefits of owning your tools - ready replacement.

- The quality of the replacement tool, which is very clearly not of the same standards or even appearance of the tool that it replaced. (Don't even get me started on how Mastercraft's 3/8 drive "deep" sockets aren't as deep anymore.) The stamped-in size and Mastercraft logo are even upside-down, for Pete's sake! How it fares in use remains to be seen.

Ordered in, and does not appear to be of the same quality as the original. The stamped-in size and brand are even upside-down.

At some point in time a number of years ago, I purchased what I believed was a good quality socket. As expected, it served me well, and when it finally failed, I expected you to honour the lifetime warranty that you built in to the price of the tool. Now you're giving me what appears to be an inferior replacement. That is totally unacceptable, and discourages me from buying any other tools from you. If I wanted cheap tools of questionable quality that are still blessed with a warranty, there's another well-known Canadian business that would fit the bill. That's not what I want, and thus not what I bought. For that, Canadian Tire Corporation, I'm unhappy to present you with a Jackass Award.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Good and Bad of Car to Car Communication

OnStar and electronic toll-road transponders - two ways in which you can already be tracked

There's been a lot of talk in the past few years about "Car to Car" communication as a way of reducing the frequency or even severity of multi-vehicle collisions. The US government has stated intentions to mandate Car to Car communication by 2017 (that is, to have a bill put into effect by 2017, not that cars would have to have this technology by 2017).

On the surface, this is a great idea, and many of the technologies involved already exist, even if they may require further refinement or expansion to suit this role. There's no doubt that the majority of the players in C2C (what I'll refer to "Car to Car" as from here on) have good intentions - car crashes still continue to claim more than 33,000 lives per year in the United States, though the numbers have been trending downwards since the early '80's, and are now at the lowest they've been since World War II. There are, of course, a far greater number of people that sustain life-changing injuries of some kind that these statistics don't cover. Canada's statistics are slightly lower overall than the US on a "per km traveled" and "per 100,000 persons" basis, but car crashes remain a very real concern.

So why am I not entirely pleased with C2C? Several reasons, actually.The premise of C2C is that vehicles would broadcast their relative position, heading, and speed over a proposed range of approximately 250-300 metres. In practice, with buildings and landforms potentially interfering, I'm going to suggest that the systems will end up having a greater output, say perhaps 500 metres. Heck, the 10 metre claimed range of my Bluetooth handsfree speakerphone is in reality easily double that in real life, as my phone often remains paired inside my steel-walled workplace as my car sits well away from the building out in the lot.

While I'm the last guy you'll see walking around with a tin-foil hat, I will acknowledge a certain amount of concern for the amount of radio waves we already saturate ourselves with. That is only a little, tiny part of my dislike for this continual broadcast; my concern is how easily this information could be used against you.

Proponents of C2C claim that vehicles will not be able to be individually identified by their C2C information, but I call bullshit. Just like your computer's IP Address can be used to track and even (not all that) roughly determine your location - how many pop-ups have you had that use your town's name? - it is unlikely that there won't be some kind of unique identifier or backdoor means of determining which vehicle is transmitting.

Further, if you are the only vehicle in a given area, it would not be difficult for the police to quite easily determine which vehicle it is that is broadcasting a speed in excess of the posted limit, even without the added bonus of heading and location information. Yes, folks, your car will tell on you, and it is not terribly difficult to imagine this data being used against you.

Similarly, much as is currently the case with electronic toll-road transponders, it would be dead easy for stationary nodes to monitor which vehicles pass by, and the ability for such information to be processed and stored already exists. Think about it; in amongst the several thousand cars on a given stretch of Ontario's Highway 407, most have entered and will exit the toll-road at different points, yet each will get billed for their usage, with the statements showing the exact times each way-point was crossed, a technology that has been in operation since 1997. 1997; when a 80 GB hard drive was huge, and the internet was dial-up. Think the technology has advanced since?

It should be pointed out that built-in telematics systems like GM's OnStar are already not only capable of tracking and transmitting speed, location, and specific vehicle ID (as well as lots of operational data), but actually already do do this, even if that information is said not to be used unless required for the service to function. It is both possible and legal, however, to disable these telematics systems, should the owner wish. Modern airbag modules also store a 5-10 second running snapshot of some vehicle parameters (brake application, speed, steering wheel angle, ESC/ABS operation, seat-belt use, etc.), stored in the event of airbag deployment - that "black-box" functionality can not be readily disabled without potentially affecting airbag operation. 

I don't consider myself a conspiracy theorist kind of guy, but do keep in mind that C2C is being pushed by the same government that has been steadily whittling away at its citizen's civil liberties in the name of security since 9/11. The connection isn't entirely implausible, nor is it totally unrealistic. Deliberate or not, it's very easy to see the system getting abused post-implementation, just as it's now possible to use cell phones for spying, a practice already acknowledged to occur. Where's that tin-foil hat?

Another concern for me is what I like to call "the ABS Effect". When vehicles with anti-lock brakes first came on the market, there was a pronounced increase in rear-end collisions with ABS-equipped models. This was not because they stopped so fast that non-ABS vehicles hit them (though there probably were more than a few of those instances too). It was because their drivers felt overly confident about the ability of their vehicles to stop faster, so they followed closer behind the car ahead, and took greater risks, having less concern for their stopping distances. The same thing happens with those who drive all-wheel drive models in inclement weather, and there's doubtless some degree of the ABS Effect occurring today with all post-2011 cars having mandatory stability control. Guaranteed that drivers will yet again put excessive trust in C2C, being even less aware of their situation than they are today. Never mind that for C2C to be truly effective, 100% of the vehicle fleet would have to have perfectly functioning C2C systems.

Which brings me to my final concern: implementation and serviceability. As a full-time working technician, I can tell you that despite ABS - a key component in stability control - being in wide use for more than 25 years, it still has durability issues when exposed to the real world environment of vibration and corrosion. Computers are hardly foolproof either - I just replaced the engine computer in a 2005 Buick that had only 25,000 km on it (did it die of boredom, perhaps?). Diagnosing and repairing the existing wireless components in today's cars, such as keyless entry, tire pressure monitoring (TPMS), and passive entry/starting, is already a challenge. (Let me tell you that TPMS, required in the US since 2008, has been a headache, as these systems are fragile and trouble-prone, and with no standardized implementation beyond transmitter frequencies, they vary in service ease between piece of cake and piece of, well, you get it.)

So when these C2C systems take a dirt nap, or worse yet, give erroneous information that results in a collision, who's going to be responsible? Will it be required by law that these systems be kept in working order as the vehicle ages or gets damaged? How will that be enforced? Will you legally be able to opt out? What are the legal implications if you're involved in a collision and your C2C system is determined to have been faulty? Will your insurance still cover you?

These are just a few of the questions that need to be addressed before C2C ever sees reality, and it's tough to imagine it getting rammed down the throats of US citizens, a nation that still does not have country-wide seat belt use laws (New Hampshire only requires their use by minors, for example).

There's little doubt in my mind that some form of C2C, just like fully autonomous vehicles, will eventually come into play. Likewise, I do think that there are very real benefits to such technologies. I believe it is still too soon however, and that there are still too many unanswered questions and unaddressed concerns for them to be mandated into use in the near future.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Jackass Award - GM Pickups Fuel Pump Control Module

2009 Chevy Silverado plow truck (with apologies for the CCTV-screencap image quality)

First, a bit of a back story. Electronic fuel injection was just hitting the mainstream when I began working on cars for pay (rather than to avoid paying...) just over 20 years ago. There were several different strategies involved in feeding the systems with fuel, all of which involved at least one electric pump. To prevent the pump from running unnecessarily after a stall, a crash, or just sitting with the key on, the pumps were usually switched on by either the engine computer (through a relay), an oil pressure switch, or both (early GM systems especially).

Most had a single in-tank fuel pump that delivered a constant feed of fuel at a pressure governed by a regulator (usually throttle-body or injector-rail mounted and vacuum controlled) that bled any excess fuel back to the tank through a return line.

Others - most notably the Europeans - would use a low pressure feed pump in or near the tank to supply a second, high pressure pump that ultimately accomplished the same function as the single-pump setup.

The odd vehicle had the ability to vary pump speed, usually through a dropping resistor, or via high frequency voltage toggling (known as pulse-width modulation). This was done primarily to reduce pump noise at low speed and idle, when demand was low and ambient noise less likely to disguise the ruckus.

As technology has introduced more precise injection control, a large number of vehicles have gone to what are called "returnless" systems, where there's no longer a second fuel line coming back from the engine compartment to return excess fuel supply. A single line simply supplies fuel at the required pressure to the injector rail. This eliminates some parts, but most importantly, prevents the fuel from being warmed by engine heat prior to its return to the tank, which apparently offers benefits in emission reductions and possibly even power production.

Often there's a fixed pressure regulator in the tank or a nearby filter/regulator assembly to make this single line system possible. Others vary the fuel pump's power supply to control its output and therefore pressure, usually with feedback from a fuel-rail pressure sensor. This is where our Jackass Award story begins.

An important note: GM is not alone in using the basic design I'm about to discuss. Ford trucks are well know for fuel pump control module failures, for example. But some questionable engineering choices do make the one used on GM's recent model year full-sized pickups - the example featured, the first of these I've encountered, is a 2009 model - Award-worthy.

This seemed like a good idea to someone...

The above photo shows where GM chose to locate the Silverado's (and the identical Sierra's) FPCM (Fuel Pressure Control Module), just above the spare tire beneath the box at the rear of the truck. Ford is equally guilty of mounting the fuel pressure control module where corrosion will eat it. They were doing it well before GM decided to follow suit. Hey, if it didn't work for Ford...

To diagnose this thing, most of the trouble code diagnostic "trees" require you to unplug this connector. The lid swings down to unlatch it - impossible, by about an inch, with the spare tire in place. Ever lowered the spare on a modern pickup?

Rube Goldberg would be proud

I have. Fortunately, this truck , in spite of being used for plowing snow and landscaping, is well-kept, clean, and not a big muddy ball of corrosion, so the process was only slightly aggravating: find and extract the toolkit (often buried or missing), unlock the spare tire lock (good seize-in-place potential), assemble the correct sequence of crank segments (instructions? Who needs 'em?), spend a few minutes trying to get the tool to align and function in the winch (you'd think the built-in guide would make that a first-attempt thing. It doesn't.), crank the spare down.

Finally able to disconnect the connector, we verify that the module has failed and needs to be replaced. Surprise! Our local dealer has one in stock.

On the vehicle, this view is only possible with a mirror, a boroscope, or a cameraphone jammed up against the floor of the box. Nice corrosion.

If you look closely at the spare tire-view photo, you can see that the module is fastened to the bracket it's mounted to from above. A Jackass Award qualifier. Extra Jackass points though because the fasteners in question are rounded-head Torx bolts with fine threads - seen from the top, after mild, fruitless digging out with a pick - in the above photo. The three of those are not coming out without a level of personal attention that's all but impossible in-situ.

Another cameraphone-aided view. Only my hand could see this otherwise. Thank goodness for ratcheting wrenches.

The FPCM is mounted to a large bracket that also holds the TBCM (Trailer Brake Control Module) and another small electrical component. It bolts to the left frame rail and the spare tire winch mount. Fortunately, its three fasteners have conventional hex-heads, though, in true Jackass form, they are also top-mounted, and the winch-side one is conveniently and for no apparent reason located directly beneath the pickup bed's reinforcement beam. There will be no using air tools or even a ratchet on those. Nice. (At least this particular truck was mud and corrosion free.)


I think I may have peed...

Once extricated from its bracket, the FPCM peed on our bench. Actually, I was glad to see this, because condemning electrical components can be stressful because you usually can't see anything wrong. Water leaking out? I'm feeling pretty comfortable with my diagnosis! It may need more, but it definitely needs this.

Note that the silver side seen above is the top. The plastic tub forms the bottom, making a decent water-retaining bowl. Obviously the thin layer of sealant wasn't enough to keep the water out (or in). You surely wouldn't want to mount it the other way, and give it a fighting chance.

Carefully opened afterward with a 24 oz ball-pein hammer, water can be seen inside. Think those IC chips like water?

The new one has a thick bead of sealant oozing out of it. It got new bolts too, though they didn't come with it.
So we get our new module, mount it to the bracket, fish the bracket's top-mounted fasteners back in and ratchet-wrench them tight, successfully clear the trouble codes, crank the truck, and get...  ...a brief fire-up followed half a second later by a stall and refusal to restart.

Recheck the codes to see what else is wrong, and see..

That's not good.

... that the FPCM needs to be programmed. It's a several hundred dollar box of rocks without the proper software. The common-failing Ford truck fuel pump modules don't need this. They're even available from the aftermarket, plug'n play. Not this one; the final, Jackass Award-clinching move.
Shouldn't have been a surprise, actually, because in this generation of GM pickup, even the power window switches have to be programmed when replaced. Got an identical, same year truck, identically optioned, and want to temporarily swap the switch to put a window up when the original switch breaks on a -25ÂșC day? Won't work - not programmed to that truck, as one of our tow-truck fleet operators discovered, to his extreme pleasure.

Money, money, money...

At this point there are a couple of options.
- Tow the truck to a dealer (what GM would clearly like you to do, though they'd probably be happier still if their dealer had diagnosed and replaced the module in the first place).
- Tow the truck to a shop that has GM programming capability (which they have to pay to subscribe to - GM is still making a smiley face).
- Program it yourself. Assuming you have the several thousand dollars worth of equipment and/or software to do it, of course. You will also have to pay GM a subscription fee to access the download. $55US gives you 2 days of access to that content, for example, so GM still wins.


For designing a vehicle that even requires a stand-alone module to operate the fuel pump, then making that module vulnerable to moisture intrusion and mounting where such intrusion is virtually guaranteed (particularly in a vehicle type that frequently gets operated in exaggerated conditions), then making replacement of the module physically difficult by fastening it with corrosion-prone fasteners mounted on the backside of a bracket sandwiched beneath a pickup box (rather than just attaching it from the underside), and ultimately requiring that said module then be programmed for the simple task of running a fuel pump - General Motors, I'm forced to hand you a Jackass Award.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Shameless Self-promotion

Just a few of this year's Christmas Gift suggestions - A Blipshift shirt, Harveys Seatbelt purse (or wallet), and Mechanix gloves

It's getting more and more difficult to link to the Toronto Star's Wheels Section's website - wheels.ca - to share my articles with you, as not everything that sees print finds its way onto the web. So to share my work with you when that occurs, I'm going to publish the whole thing on my blog instead.

Do bear in mind that what you're seeing below is essentially the raw article as submitted (tidied up slightly for www presentation), not the final article as professionally edited and published in the Star. Note that the price points were specified ahead of time, and all Wheels' contributors had the same criteria to work with.

Too late for Christmas perhaps, but these would also be great birthday presents too.

Please leave me a comment if you have a preference between my doing it this way or photos of the printed article as I've done once before.

Brian’s Christmas Gift List – 2013

Gift for Someone else, $(unlimited)

I’m not shy about my lack of interest in NASCAR racing. Sure, it takes real skill and has exciting moments, but it’s just not my thing. My Mom, on the other hand, is a road racing fan and loves NASCAR.

Last year she attended her first ever NASCAR race in Las Vegas. Her sister and brother in-law vacation there, so they met up and went together - she enjoyed it so much she’s going again this year. Mom would really love to go to Bristol, Tennessee to watch a night race at Bristol Speedway, her favourite track, but she’d never go by herself.

My cost-no-object gift this year would be tickets for the three of them to attend the Night Race, plus the airfare, transportation and accommodations necessary to bring Mom from Toronto and them from Edmonton.

Savannah, Georgia-based “There and Back Again Adventures” offers packages that include hotel, coach transfers, guides, and track tickets to numerous NASCAR races, including Bristol. A package featuring a classy historic hotel in nearby Greeneville starts at $599US per person (www.thereandbackagain.com). A quick look at Air Canada’s website (www.aircanada.com) suggests their flights will cost approximately $7000, and I’d factor another $1000 for ground transportation to and from Knoxville airport.

Gift for up to $50 (1)

Got a real gearhead on your list? A T-shirt (or hoodie) wearing someone who’s immersed in car culture and loves in-joke references? Check out the latest offering on Blipshift – a website that offers a continually changing, limited-time-only, selection of quality shirts and hoodies featuring graphics relevant to fans of the automobile. Shirts start at just $15US. (www.blipshift.com)

Gift for up to $50 (2)

As the weather turns cold, you (like me) will probably be tempted to wear gloves, at least for the first little while, on those chilly days. Unfortunately, most winter gloves are bulky and ill-suited for safely holding the wheel or operating controls.
While not insulated, I’ve found Mechanix work gloves keep my hands comfy enough in a cold car, and their synthetic leather palms provide a positive grip while retaining dexterity. Widely available; $29.99 per pair at Canadian Tire (www.canadiantire.ca).

Gift for up to $100 (1)

Look at almost any car with plastic headlights that’s older than five or six years and you’ll likely find discoloured, cloudy lenses. It’s partly pitting, but mostly degradation of the plastic from UV. It’s often possible to repair it, but I’d rather prevent it. Lamin-X sells pre-cut stick-on plastic film light covers for a large selection of popular vehicles, available in clear (street legal) and various tints and shades (take your chances), as well as other protection items. A 4-piece set for my RX-8’s head and fog lights is $49.95US plus shipping. (www.lamin-x.com)

Gift for up to $100 (2)

A while ago my wife received a Harveys purse as a gift. Made almost entirely out of seatbelt webbing, we both thought it was really cool. Of course, being a deep red-coloured purse, it's not something most males (myself included) would want to tote around. Turns out that Harveys also makes men’s stuff, including the Treecycle Wallet, made of salvaged seatbelts. I quite like the two-tone C-2200 style; $58US plus shipping, www.seatbeltbags.com.