‘Silver bullet’ solution doesn’t always apply to automobiles

"The complexity of the modern automobile challenges the intellect as never before."

According to Wikipedia the idiomatic usage of “silver bullet” is as a general metaphor referring to a straightforward solution perceived to have extreme effectiveness.

When faced with a broken car many a consumer is in search of the “silver bullet”.  “Google” is a great provider of “silver bullets” and You Tube will generally enable you to apply that silver bullet.

There is a tendency in the automotive mechanical repair trade to use silver bullets as a genuine diagnostic process.  The complexity of the modern automobile challenges the intellect as never before.  Faced with trying to understand how some new “vehicle stabilty control system” operates and then following a ten page troubleshooting tree that requires the use of a diagnostic tool that the repair shop does not even have to diagnosis an inoperative system code seems a giant waste of time.

More and more your automotive service technician is faced with just that scenario.  Reach for a “silver bullet”?  You bet!

Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, the silver bullet population is declining.  Why?  Vehicle reliability is soaring.  Cars don’t break like they used to.

Even though vehicles are way more complex, they also are way more reliable.  They also require significantly less maintenance.

If you are a mechanic you just do not get as much practice as you used to. There are not as many pattern failures. We used to replace front wheel drive axles and boots in high quantities.  The rubber boots used to crack and fail.  The grease would fly out and the CV joint would fail.  All of a sudden these rubber boots are made of a new kind of plastic.  This stuff lasts forever.  Not a lot of axle replacements.

The demise of pattern failures means solutions to problems require a better understanding of the system involved.  Your technician must have available to him/her the tools and information to do the job.

He or she must also be allowed the necessary time to investigate the problem systematically and thoughtfully.  It is less and less likely the answer to the problem will be quick and common.  More often than not the solution to a problem will require a slower more methodical and intellectual thought process.

The fuel pump used to be a mechanical device attached to the side of the engine driven by the engine as it turned.  Not many of these fuel pumps lasted more than 160 000 kilometres.  When they stopped working diagnosis was fairly straightforward.

Fast forward to the modern fuel pump.  Today’s fuel pumps are electric devices.  They are usually controlled by the fuel pump control module (a computer that talks with the powertrain control module).  The fuel pump is driven by electricity but only enough to rotate the pump as fast as it needs to turn to supply fuel for the current driving conditions.  Idling at a stoplight and your fuel pump is driven slowly.  Climbing the Kootenay Pass pedal to the metal and your fuel pump is receiving full power.

When the fuel pump fails to provide enough fuel the symptoms are the same as they always were.  Running out of fuel is something most of us have felt at least once in our lives.

The silver bullet says no fuel pressure, change the fuel pump.  Hey, not so fast.  That fuel pump is expensive.  Replacing it takes several hours.  Silver bullets are sometimes wrong.

Time to open the books, connect up the tools and perform the necessary tests.  Nobody can afford to be wrong.

Trail’s Ron Nutini is a licensed automotive technician and graduate of mechanical engineering from UBC. E-mail: nutechauto@telus.net

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