Tag Archives: engineering

Shifty Business – Another F-150 Failure

Pam and I had gone to the local pizza place for some takeout. In typical “I’ll buy, you fly” mode, Pam drove the F-150 with me in the passenger seat. She parked head-on by the front door and waited while I ran in for the goods.

It was just past closing time. Staffers killed the lights and ran out the door behind me.

Pam selected reverse and backed out, then pulled the lever for drive, hit the gas – AND THE TRUCK SURGED BACKWARD!

There wasn’t much room in the lot so she maneuvered to the curb, occupying about three marked spaces, and killed the engine.

It’s dark, beginning to rain, maybe three or so miles from home, hot food in the back seat, and we’re hungry. I called the kid for a lift home. We’d eat and think, then come back. Maybe the rain would pass.

The console lever felt sloppy, disconnected, I suspected a mechanical issue like a linkage or cable had worked its way loose. The console lever has a history.  I removed the plastic shroud and felt around as best I could in the darkened cab; nothing felt out-of-place and my earlier hack/repair felt intact.

Then the kid soon arrived. We locked up and left to eat.

Sure enough, a bit of Internet searching turned up lots of similar failures! The most common issue came down to the cable-end detaching from the transmission lever. We returned to the truck armed with a good flashlight and I crawled under for a look. Before you ask, yes, the rainwater had pooled underneath…

Now it was clear that the cable-end was no longer attached. By manipulating the console and transmission levers it was possible to reattach, but when the console lever moved the cable end fell right off. The press-fit retention was no longer retaining!

I figured we could get the truck home, though. That’d free up parking for the restaurant and make for more comfortable work. The safety interlock only allow the truck to start in park and I could manipulate the levers to do that from beneath. With the truck started I could move the transmission lever into drive while Pam applied the brake. Then I’d crawl out she could drive home.

Pam was less than thrilled with the idea. But she did it. She probably pressed that brake pedal almost through the floorboard while I was under the truck fiddling with the transmission lever, engine running!

Cable end at top, transmission lever at bottom. The white plastic bit captures that knob.

The Root Cause
The cable end is a roundish half-bowl of plastic molded onto the semi-flexible metal rod that extends from its sleeve. In the picture you can see a white plastic insert fitting in the black bowl. The transmission lever has a protruding machined knob that’s captured by that bit of white plastic.

Failure occurs when the white plastic insert no longer captures the knob.

The cable assembly is not adjustable. The length is exactly what it is. That’s important because…

When the console lever’s placed in park – that’s how the truck spends much of its time since being manufactured – there’s much linear force being applied against the transmission lever. By that I mean if you select park and slip the cable end free of the transmission lever (easy to do, now that the part’s failed), the cable end springs out extend a good 3/8″ past the transmission lever. You cannot put it back in place without manipulating the console lever positions, the end-to-knob alignment is that far off. So of course that 29-cent bit of plastic will fail eventually! It’s designed to fail!

The Repair
The cable assembly – part number 4L3Z-7E395-CA for my 2004 unit – is available on Amazon for about $48. I don’t have a shop manual – that’s another story for another time – but it looks like it could be replaced in a couple of hours. Beer optional.

Obviously, a dealership could handle the repair. I heard that runs around $300-$350, including parts.

Ascension Engineering’s current location, under construction when Google Earth grabbed this shot.

But let me introduce you  to Ascension Engineering. They produce a line of replacements for those little white pieces of plastic – apparently it’s a common failure mode across a wide variety vehicles, not merely Fords. The parts sell through their website, BushingFix.com. And business is apparently pretty damned good – Ascension Engineering’s principal relocated to some considerably nicer digs between May 2015 and March of 2016…

Shipping origin. Click for detail.

Y’know, $25 is a lot of money for a bitty bit of plastic. (Update: I learned, when sending a link to this article to the manufacturer for review, that the price is now reduced. My luck, right?) Okay, there’s design, tooling costs, manufacturing, but any number of Chinese outfits will do all that. Probably including the engineering design, too. It seems likely that they already manufacture those little bushings for the auto manufacturers.  That Mr. Smith, he’s one smart cookie!

Screw it. I ordered a kit. There was sales tax, we’re both in  Florida. And shipping was, I thought, a little high at just under $6 for USPS. The total cost was $32.29. I showed up at my door in a few days, shipped from Charlotte, North Carolina.

The cage-hack. See text for features. Click to enlarge for detail.

But First, An Interim Hack
A couple of weeks before the order and permanent repair, a simple hack was necessary to keep the truck on the road. A truck’s a useful tool here in rural Florida. There’s trash and recycling to haul, stuff like that.

I hacked up a little cage from (what else?) coat-hang wire – easy to work with, yet stiff enough to enclose the cable end.

It’s got some nifty features. First, it’s a cage. It’s solidly attached to the transmission’s shift lever and doesn’t contact the cable or its end except where it absolutely must, to prevent the thing from slipping off the knob. That contact is minimized by a custom thrust plate constructed of softer plastic. (Don’t be fooled, the thrust plate is from a plastic storage bin. We use the bins as high-walled litter boxes for our feline residents, and this is the material cut out to form a door.) Notice the bend in the thrust plate, and the cutouts so the cage retains it.

The hack would likely outlast the truck. But a replacement part was on the way.

The Replacement Bushing
It arrived in about a week. Here’s what $32.29 bought me:

The package, as received, followed by the individual parts and instructions. It’s actually well-thought out and about as foolproof as it gets. Click for a larger image.

Three bits of plastic: the bushing itself plus two more that served as press-blocks. Click to enlarge the image and see the instructions. Leaning way towards foolproof, I’ve gotta say. It took me longer to remove my hack than it did to install the replacement.

Debris in my cable-end cup. The rear of the truck is the right side of the image. The cable presses rearward when the transmission is in park. Click to enlarge.

Part of the install involves digging out any old bushing parts from the cable end cup. I used a carbide-tipped scribe and it cleaned up in a few seconds. Here’s a shot of what was left in my cup before that step. Pretty disgusting. But what’s clear as an unmuddy lake is how the linear force of sitting in Park had basically ruined one side while the other remained basically unworn. Ford’s non-adjustable setup is designed to fail. It’s only a matter of time.

Bushing installed. Click to enlarge.

I assembled the sandwich of plastic bits and used a pair of Channellock pliers to give it a squeeze. I chose the Channellocks because of the  adjustable jaws but I think a pair of ordinary pliers like those found in the average person’s tool bag would have done the job just as well. You’d need pliers, though, it’s a bit much for fingers alone.

Repair complete. Click to enlarge.

The rejuvenated cable end mated to the transmission lever with a satisfying click. Then I exercised the console lever. It felt great.

Notice in the completed repair image that there’s a slight gap between the cable-end cup and the transmission shift lever. This tells me that the replacement bushing is the proper size for the job. If the knob sat too deep then the two parts would rub, wearing the cable-end cup.

So How’s It Holding Up?
It’s been a few months since all this went down and so far, so good.

No issues, no complaints, the repair feels as tight as ever. How long will it last? Hard to say. Ford’s designed-to-fail assembly of the subsystem remains unchanged. What’s a worse environment? New Jersey winters or the Florida heat? Time will tell.

F-150 R203 Relay Failures Revisited

Back in 2013 I wrote about how my 2004 F-150 stranded me with an R203 relay failure. Since then I haven’t gotten any closer to a cause or solution. I’ve periodically replaced the relay as needed. But I’ve got a few more observations to add.

  • The DTC codes reported by the in-dash diagnostics (Engineering Mode) have meaningless meanings. D900 is just a general communication fault, not helpful, like “syntax error”.  D950 is apparently an instrument cluster issue. Both make sense. No power to the PCM will tend to inhibit communications. No PCM data means the instrument cluster will be data-starved despite being powered up. Duh.
  • When running, the R203 relay runs HOT. You can hardly keep a finger on it.
  • It’s not necessary to replace the R203 relay as soon as it balks. In the beginning, simply removing and replacing it will often get it working again. After a while, stronger ‘persuasion’ is needed. I’ve gotten good at pulling the relay, giving it a couple of raps on the pillar, and jamming it home – even in the dark. Eventually the relay requires replacement.
  • The part of the relay that fails is energizing circuit. A completely failed relay seems physically distorted by the heat over time. I haven’t been able to correlate this to long trips – we don’t use the truck that much – but it wouldn’t surprise me. A cross-country trip involving all-day use might be troublesome. Conclusion: there’s a high current draw on that circuit somewhere. I doubt it’s the relay itself, too many parts have been in there. Maybe the fuse panel itself?
  • Ambient heat worsens the problem. In winter (like Florida has a ‘winter’, right?) the failure doesn’t happen as often. Leaving the kickpanel off helps extend life.  I’ve considered sandwiching the relay with Peltier devices, maybe something like this. Yeah, that’s fixing the symptom and not the cause, but WTF.

That’s about all I’ve got.

Maybe someone out there has the Ford shop manual pages for the fuse/relay panel? And/or the wiring diagram page(s) for the PCM power relay circuit? (2004 Ford F-150, SuperCrew, 5.4L V8, automatic transmission.)

Thanks, you great, big, wonderful Internet, you.

Bike Parts – Deal Gone Good

I love it when I have the opportunity to talk about companies that do things right. Here’s one: Will Powered Products.

Will Powered Products is a small company out of Dingman’s Ferry, PA that produces a limited line of high quality motorcycle parts. Hand grips, foot pegs, cable clamps – stuff like that. Simple stuff. But made from serious metal, cast and machined with quality and workmanship that you just know will last forever.

I first ran into Barry Will at a swap meet a couple of years back. I had gone through several sets of Harley-branded hand grips on my Dyna and I was sort of idly looking for something better. Funny thing, the Harley-branded grips start out looking and feeling great but they just don’t hold up over time. The Will Powered Products grips are machined from solid aluminum. They’re kind of expensive at nearly three times the cost of Harley-Davidson grips but they felt like they’d outlast the bike. I mulled it over as I wandered the show floor and ended up buying them on the way out. Today they look and feel just as good as the day I installed ’em.

Clutch Cable Clamp
Solid aluminum clutch cable clamp from Will Powered Products. Click for larger image.
I saw Barry again at the Jersey Giant show/swap meet last April. This time it was his polished cable clamps that looked interesting. Ever see the stock Harley-Davidson cable stays? Cheap, plastic-coated slivers of spring steel, they’re functional but kinda ugly. Anyway, I needed two clamps but there was only one on hand. Barry promised to ship another right away so I paid for both and took one, handing off a business card with my shipping address. As I walked away from the table – sans receipt for the cash purchase – Pam gave me a questioning look. “I don’t think I need a receipt, he’ll do the right thing,” I said. “It’ll be worth the price to find out if my judgment’s still good.”

This is where things got interesting. After the weekend Barry emailed that he had sent the camp. And a few days later he emailed again saying that it had come back for insufficient

Keychain as jewelry
Keychain as jewelry, Damian's idea. He's thinking it needs something in the center, hasn't figured out what yet. I'm wondering what the center is made from, just in case I need to put it on the drill press.

postage – and that another would go right out. A few days later it arrived. Bummer, though, it turned out to be the wrong size for my needs. I emailed Barry, sent it back the next day and left for some travel. When I returned from St. Louis the correct-sized clamp was waiting. But that’s not all. Also in the package were two key chains styled after their dipsticks, AND three bucks – cash – presumably to cover my return shipping.

There are a few basic principles at work in this story. The principles are proven – they work in business and in life. Do what you say you will do. Will Powered Products did exactly that every step of the way, from shipping to keeping me informed. When something goes wrong, assume responsibility and do what’s necessary to fix it. Don’t make excuses. Mistakes happen. There were a few in this story but each were always handled as well as could be expected. Barry even mentioned that they took the extra step to ensure that their stock was correctly identified for size in order to reduce the possibility of future errors. Delight your customer. Throughout this extended transaction I always felt like I knew where things stood, so there was no anxiety or tension. Then Barry stepped up with unexpected extras in the end.

So, two thumbs up to Barry and Will Powered Products! Check out their Web site and if you’ve got a need for that kind of stuff for your bike then don’t hesitate to do business with them. They’re an American company making high-quality products that are absolutely worth the cost. You’ll know that the moment you hold one of their parts in your hand.

As for me, maybe some of those spiky footpegs are in my future…

Obligatory disclaimer: I don’t have any interest in Will Powered Products other than that of a satisfied customer.

Drive With the Power of… Thought?

Can you imagine this? In today’s world of distracted drivers?

Scientists Steer Car with the Power of Thought

Computer Scientists at Freie Universität Couple Brain Waves with Driving Technology – Testing at Former Tempelhof Airport

[ed. link died]


One-Car Garage

  • two Harley-Davidson motorcycles
  • one Jeep Wrangler
  • three adult-sized bicycles
  • two unicycles (24-inch and 36-inch wheels)
  • two floor-to-ceiling sets of shelves (spanning entire back wall, packed full)
  • one hydraulic motorcycle/ATV jack
  • one bolt-to-the-floor tire changer/bead breaker
  • two air compressors on carts (one a 2-cylinder commercial unit)
  • one eye-height tool chest (wheeled, full)
  • one vacuum cleaner
  • two 35-gallon recycling containers
  • lumber (approximately 120 cubic feet)
  • one folding workbench (yep, folded)
  • one set of two medium-duty automotive service ramps
  • three aluminum ladders (16-foot extension; 24-foot extension; 16-foot folding scaffold)
  • one 10-ton hydraulic log splitter
  • one 65-gallon trash can
  • assorted yard tools (shovels, rakes, hoes, brooms, and so on.)
  • and more small stuff (too various and numerous to mention)

The garage is packed kinda tight tonight.

There’s a storm coming that could dump a foot of snow – the largest snowfall here in about two years. I’ve got space outside to park the pickup, but I want the Jeep off the street.

It’s positively astounding what you can fit into a tiny space with just a little bit of planning!

Mobile Phone Adventure

Verizon Wireless, my mobile carrier, has been pestering me lately. An equipment upgrade offer was pending. My pair of old Motorola RAZR V3c handsets serve me quite well so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to add a third number and a new handset for my son, something we’ve been talking about for a while. Yesterday we stopped at one of their local brick-and-mortar facilities to get that done. I don’t know about you, but every time I have to physically show up to do something with my mobile phones there is trouble of one sort or another…

I’m an unusual wireless customer. I use my phone to make and receive voice calls. For email, Web, music, pictures, videos, ad nauseum, I’ll reach for a more appropriate piece of equipment. I’m not thrilled with Verizon Wireless’ closed network, either, or the way they nickel-and-dime you for every little thing. But their performance – at least where I use it – is second to none. I cannot recall the last time I had a call drop or not go through. Each ‘line’ (an archaic term in the wireless world) draws from a single pool of enough minutes that we use it without thinking and never need to buy extra, thanks to a reasonably priced grandfathered contract, sans enhanced services, that they haven’t offered in years. I’ve been a steady customer for better than a decade and a half. I’m an unusual customer.

We found a handset my son liked and made our way to the counter only to learn that the upgrade offer applied only to my V3c. But nothing’s carved in stone and after some discussion we found a way: a temporary upgrade. I buy a new handset (an LG VX9100, free after the promotion) and move my number to it. I buy an additional ‘line’ for my son, and assign the new number to my old V3c. Finally, the next day, we would swap the numbers between the two handsets, under the auspices that I’m unhappy with the new handset. Normally that swap would be $20 a pop, but there would be no charge. And everybody would be happy.

A while later we discovered that my V3c didn’t respond on the new number. Things went downhill fast from there. Tech Support reported that the new number belonged to a Blackberry belonging to Merrill Lynch, that my contract shows only two numbers, and that my V3c ESN no longer exists. Oops.

Back at the store they tried to get me to just replace the handset, “Just take the best we’ve got, no charge!” No thanks, I want the one I’ve got, please fix it. They finally managed to install a dummy ESN onto it and assign the new number, and get my contract to recognize them both. But because of the dummy ESN the handset doesn’t do anything, it’s a brick. Tomorrow, they say, they will be able to finish straightening it out.

I need to digress with some history… Verizon Wireless was probably the last carrier on Earth to add the incredibly popular – and profitable – Motorola RAZR handsets. The reasons were two-fold. First, the CDMA chipset was physically larger, and Motorola had some difficulty making it fit into the small package. Second, all Verizon Wireless phones (at the time) sported an external antenna, which helped them to provide their outstanding network performance. The RAZR’s antenna is internal. As for me, I wanted the small size but I was unwilling to switch carriers. So I waited it out. Eventually Motorola got the hardware into the handset and got the antenna performance good enough to pass Verizon Wireless’ performance testing (it took several rounds of testing which led to yet more delays). Finally they were set to roll ’em out. Just in time for Christmas! Well, sort of.

In the mobile phone industry, a hardware manufacturer will develop a new handset and the base software to make it the features work, as well as an SDK. A carrier will take that and develop their own software layer, which in turn becomes the set of services and capabilities that differentiate one carrier from another. In the case of Verizon Wireless, with their closed network, part of their software development is to lock down the handset. The customized RAZR software, due to the Christmas sale deadline, was a rush job.

Watching all that unfold, I bought my handsets a day or two before they became available at the stores. My handsets are not locked down. The best thing about this is my Bluetooth profiles include OBEX. And that means I can add custom rings I make myself, get images and voice recordings on and off, use the crappy little camera (when needed and nothing better is available), use it as a wireless (or wired, via USB) modem with the laptop, and so on, all without incurring Verizon Wireless charges.

And that’s why I don’t want to give up these handsets or upgrade their firmware. Whenever I need to explain this, the representative smiles and understands. [Ed. 6 July 2008: My wife, OTOH, never really understood why I held those capabilities so dear. That is, until the latest bill arrived. My son had bought a ringtone. $2.95, no big deal, but the browsing charges, the megabyte charges, and the fact that he tried the Web browsers on all of our handsets by the time he was through, had brought the cost of that stupid ringtone to near $20. When I explained how billing works, and had real examples to use, the lightbulb went on.]

So today I will see whether they can get this mess straightened out. I’m nervously optimistic.

College Acceptance Rates at an All-Time Low

This, at a time when the tech industry is polarized into two factions – those that say America is simply does not have enough talent to go around and the others that say that corporations are focused only on saving money by using lower-paid foreign talent. In this Information Week article, MIT Turns Down Record 11,842, Richard Martin discusses the increased competition for entrance into our best schools. [The link died.]

What caught my eye is this:

The increased competition for undergraduate slots at MIT comes at a time when fewer Americans are earning graduate degrees from the top math and science programs in the United States. MIT says that 35% of its students come from overseas, and many of the foreigners speak languages not taught at the school.

Next year my son enters high school. Topics like this are coming up in conversation at our house with increasing frequency. Ah, the future.

America… just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.”
-Hunter S. Thompson