DTF . . .

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That acronym has two meanings – one of them having nothing to do with cars and so we won’t get into that, here.

It’s the other meaning – Designed to Fail –  that’s worth explication. It isn’t quite the same thing as planned obsolescence – the designing of cars to be replaced, ideally as soon as possible.

DTF is more subtle.

The vehicle, itself, does not fail. But a part of it – often trivial, as such, but which is critically necessary for the continued operation of the vehicle – does. And that part seems to have been specifically designed not only to fail but to be exasperatingly difficult for the average vehicle owner to replace or repair, himself.

An excellent example of this is the plastic nib that Nissan installed in a hole in the brake pedal lever of a number of its vehicles, including my vehicle – a 2002 Frontier pickup. This plastic nib pushes in a small pin within the brake light switch, automatically turning off the brake lights whenever the brake pedal is not being depressed. All is well until – inevitably – the plastic nib falls out of the hole in the brake pedal lever – due to the inevitable aging (and shrinking/cracking) of the plastic.

When this happens, the brake lights never go off – even with the key in the Off position. The only way to get them to turn off – without replacing the plastic nib – is to pop the hood and disconnect the battery cable.

This is not a disabling problem – but it is a huge hassle, over a piece of plastic that costs less than $10 to buy. But which is extremely difficult to replace, due to the physical contortions involved.

You cannot even see the hole in the brake pedal lever that the plastic nib goes into – assuming you are limber enough to contort your body sufficiently so as to be able to look up, underside the guts of the steering wheel column. Because with the brake pedal up, the lever moves back in such a way as to make it impossible to see the hole.

There is almost no room for a head – much less hands.

There is however, a trick.

If you hold down the brake pedal – engine on, so it can be depressed all the way to the floor – you will then be able to see the little hole into which the plastic nib fits. The problem becomes how to keep the brake pedal down while simultaneously getting down – and back underside the dash.

One way is to have a helper hold the brake pedal down while you get down. But now you have their legs in the way. A better way is to cut a length of wood adequate to jam the brake pedal as low as it will go and then brace it against the steering wheel.

Now you’ll be able to get under there and see the stupid (or maybe not-so-stupid) little hole Nissan bored into the brake pedal lever that the plastic nib is supposed to fit into. But getting the replacement nib (you can also use a small bolt – it works just as well) into the hole is a whole new circle of Hell.

Everything seems to be in the way. There is a welded-in-place (to the steering column) plate in just the right place. To occlude both view – and access.

You can get your fingers within a few inches – but the last couple of inches are like the proverbial mirage in the desert. So close – yet so far away. If you have big fingers, forget about it. This almost automatically excludes most men – who tend to be the ones most likely to even try to fix this, themselves.

A determined person might use a hemostat or a pair of very long-nosed pliers to bridge those last couple of inches and slip the nib (or bolt) in place. Another field expedient is to use two-sided tape to stick the nib on a single finger and try to maneuver that one finger past the obstructions, then wiggle the nib through the hole.

It is an exasperating job that will defeat most people before they even try. But you can’t drive around with your brake lights on perpetually – unless you want to deal with an armed government worker. And even if you don’t have to deal with an AGW, you will have to deal with a dead battery – unless you disconnect it every single time you’re done driving for the day.

And then reconnect it when you’re ready to drive, again.

Ergo, most people will head over to their Nissan (or Honda or Toyota or any of several other brands that design vehicles with this infernal plastic nib that’s meant to fail) to pay to have it fixed.

This generates a steady and predictable revenue stream for the dealership, since every vehicle that has one of these little pieces of plastic will – eventually – need a new piece of plastic.

It was designed to fail.

There is no other explanation. There doesn’t even need to be a hole in the brake pedal lever; just a bump sufficient to depress the pin in the brake light switch. Or at least, something metal and permanent rather than plastic and certain for that reason to eventually  . . . fail.

This is but one example of that. There are many others – all of them more insidious than obviously planned obsolescence. Your vehicle has many miles left to travel. It is mechanically and cosmetically sound. But this stupid little part broke and without it, the vehicle is no longer usable.

And now – if you have fat fingers or aren’t extremely flexible and very determined – you’ll get to pay the dealer probably ten times what the piece of plastic cost, to get it replaced.

That’s DTF.

The last letter of which it has in common with the other meaning of that acronym.

. . .

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40 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve gotten a lot of crap from “mechanics” over the years for my penchant for creating access panels, to date I’ve never dropped a tank to replace a fuel pump. Once was driving through town in my old Dakota(now with the truck gods) when the crappy aftermarket fuel pump died again, luckily I had enough momentum to coast into the Vatozone parking lot. The vatos looked at me like I was nuts when I asked to borrow a hammer and screwdriver so I could change my pump in the parking lot, 5 min later they’re expressions changed when I returned the tools and went on my merry way. Occams Razor is a rule to live by.

    • Mazdas I’ve dealt with all had factory access panels for the fuel pump under the back seat.

      The problem with creating an access panel where doesn’t exist from the factory usually isn’t a structural issue but one of doing it neatly and so it seals. The idea of crudely cut holes is not something I want in my cars. I’ve seen access holes people make and they are almost always crudely done.

  2. Go get your vaccine lobotemy.

    Had a Mazda little pickup, had an issue with the clutch, leaked, maybe an easy fix, however, don’t want to deal with the repair at all. Always adding fluid to the reservoir.

    Too much of a pain. You could start the engine when in gear, some redeeming value there.

    Sold it after dealing with the problem for longer than could be tolerated.

    Designed to fail, destined to fail, must be what gets done.

    After a blown head gasket and a 1600 dollar repair, the handwriting was on the wall.

    So the conclusion is to decide to not buy the Mazda make.

    Problem solved.

    Propane is incorrect, the correct spelling is propain.

    • Hi Drump,

      The slave cylinder (used inmost modern vehicles with a manual transmission) is prone to the same types of failures as the master cylinder/lines, etc. It’s sound policy to regularly bleed/replace the fluid for that reason. I do mine once a year – almost as OCD as sickness kabuki performers!

  3. DTF is a side effect of cost cutting every single part past the point of sensibility.

    We’ve got constant inflation driving up prices of all goods and manufactured parts, and labor costs increasing too, while the consumer of cars is quite price sensitive. So, any changes which reduce parts cost or assembly cost, which will likely last past the warranty term, are generally implemented.

    I was appalled by the build quality on my 2018 Ford Focus. We’ve got plastic bags full of expanding foam stuffed into the fenders for noise absorption. The clutch pedal and gas pedal are plastic. Anything out of sight is held together with the crudest of staples or zip ties.

    Within a month of buying this car, the seat rails were wobbly because the seat holds onto the rail with a rubber compression fitting. The undertray is made from some kind of compressed plastic fiber, and disintegrates in water. It’s horrific.

    Some of my old cars, while not designed as nicely as new cars from a maintenance and reliability prespective, made up for it in high quality and metal, wood instead of plastic. They weren’t reliable, but they were durable, those are two different concepts. Man, what I wouldn’t give for something reliable AND durable.

    • You’d be surprised at the performance of some of the modern resins for injection molded plastic parts. I’ve been doing some metal to plastic conversions in the last couple of years to keep the shelf price the same and in some cases the plastic performs better than the die castings they replaced. Then again maybe I am just that good at my job:).

      In products aimed for commercial users the price increases are more tolerable. For regular people products need to keep that shelf price.

      For any sort of product if you want something reliable AND durable you need to look at the products businesses buy. The design cycle for those is also MUCH longer. You could be looking at something constructed the way it was done 20 years ago.

  4. Had a fox body Mustang with 5 sp manual. The clutch had a slack take-up feature, which was basically two gears meshing with each other. The slack take up feature would allow you to slip a few teeth between those gears. Worked great for a while until the teeth stripped. Found out the gears for this were NYLON!!!! Geez, cant even be pot metal?!?!?! Now, I did need a clutch as it turned out, but it really annoyed me about those nylon gears in the take-up feature off the clutch pedal!

    • Many replace those with an aftermarket aluminum piece and manual adjuster. I did on my SN95. It was used up until the last cable actuated clutch in a Mustang in 2004.

  5. 1994 Chevy S-10: The turn signal switch lever: Really, t’s not so much the lever, but the fulcrum that holds the pin for the lever. That got cooked from the heat of many summers and broke, and now I have a JB Weld Steel Stick construct holding it in place.

    Why the fuck they didn’t just have an integrated switch, like other GM models, that could be easily replaced from the outside of the steering column, is beyond me. I would’ve never even considered the mouse trap cluster they put in the steering column, which also broke, but COULD be replaced, by removing the steering wheel and all the BS that entails.

    This likely wasn’t so much “DTF”, as it was just poor engineering, but still some BS.

  6. Having faced similar circumstances, I’ve found JB Weld to be a product one needs on hand. Could have just glued a nut, washer, whatever of the appropriate size to the brake lever. As long as you can touch the spot it needs to be, you can “replace” it. Be sure to degrease all parts involved. Starting Ether works well and won’t usually damage anything. I had a riding mower that the engine mount bolts had sheared off of. I glued the engine to the frame with JB Weld and it stayed together for 3 years. Much easier than pulling the engine and removing the broken studs. Which were apparently under engineered in the first place.

  7. Full Self Driving DTF:

    ‘When asked about the accidents that have occurred due to Full Self Driving, Elon Musk channeled his humanitarian side and matter-of-factly said: “The 10% that do die with autonomy are still going to sue you. The 90% that are still living aren’t even going to know it’s the reason they’re alive.”

    ‘Then, Musk told Kara Swisher: “The transition period with new technology is always a little bumpy. The truth is that people are actually not great at driving these two-ton death machines.” — ZH

    Step right up, folks!

    • *Some* people are not great at driving them.

      These people should either stop driving (or at least reduce it as much as possible), or they should learn to drive better.

      • Speaking of which, there was a TV show about this called “Canada’s Worst Driver”. It’s entertaining and I learned stuff from watching it. All the episodes are on YouTube.

        Somehow that franchise never made it to the US.

        The last season addresses some of the more modern saaaafety features (which don’t really seem to help much if you don’t use them). Earlier seasons sometimes feature MT’s.

    • “The truth is that people are actually not great at driving these two-ton death machines.” In places like USA that have been following a build a better idiot program for 90 years.

  8. Good morning Eric,

    I just had the same exact thing happen on a 2003 Honda Insight. I noticed that the brake lights were on and then found the broken nib on the floor near the pedals. Fortunately it was easier to reach and didn’t take much time to fix. I replaced the broken plastic nib with a similarly sized bolt and nut. It should last longer this way.

    Honda and Nissan really could have used a more durable metal part or designed this better.

  9. Entire systems also can be Designed To Fail. Here’s one breaking down right now:

    ‘Enrollment in the Los Angeles Unified School District has dropped by more than 27,000 students since last year, a decline of close to 6% — a much steeper slide than in any recent year.

    ‘Between 70% and 80% of the school staff are on target to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the district’s deadline of Oct. 15, indicating that thousands of employees face termination, which would exacerbate another problem: more than 2,000 unfilled jobs.’ — LA Times

    Customers deserting ‘free’ services, as staff prepares to be fired — DTF, baby.

    Oh, and FJB too! 🙂

  10. Anyone dealing with this Nissan issue. Open a bleed screw and push the pedal to the floor. Engine off of course.

    I would wager that you need to flush your system anyway…

  11. The Detroit GM 6.2/6.5 Diesel….a great engine, fuel efficient, reliable, simple, not powerful though and still is being made for military hummers, stationary generators and marine use. Except 1 thing….if the harmonic balancer fails, the crank breaks from the shock of operation. Anyone who owns one needs to keep an eye on the rubber in the balancer, or stick a maintenance free fluidampr on it to have a long life

  12. Here is my DTF story for the mid nineties Ford Ranger (applies to other brands as well):
    The heater blender door is made of plastic and eventually breaks. It has a built in shaft that sits into a plastic shallow well in the bottom and top of the heater box. The only way to get to the heater box and open it which is bolted in the fire wall up under the dash is: evac the A/C, drain the coolant, disconnect and remove the seats, console, remove the dash board. The part is $50. The work is $1500 at the Angels shop and dealer quite often much more. If you don’t fix it the door is stuck in the last position it failed. So no defroster if you need it on the glass, either all heat or all cool all the time.
    Some smart entrepreneurs came up with the Heater-Treater.

    https://www.heatertreater.net/

    It was $125 about 7 years ago. You got a S/S door with spring loaded pins to sit in the well with a insulated door to seal, a Dramel bit to cut the heater box and instructions. You cut the bottom of the heater box next to the where the door sits in the well and cut the door out. Slip the new door in and seal tape the cookie you cut the box with back onto position. Took 2-hrs taking my time. Great solution to a big problem that someone wasn’t not going to be taken to the cleaners by PTF.

      • They aren’t necessarily smarter, they just have different motives. The engineers who designed your brake/brake light interface had no intentions of making it easy to fix, just easy to assemble quickly, and at the lowest practical cost for parts. I might point out that IF you have a garage, move your junk out and park your car there. The reduction in temperature difference, air circulation, and sunlight will double the life of non metal parts, and metal parts, as it warms up from 40 degrees or so instead of 0.0 degrees in the winter.

        • RE: “will double the life of non metal parts, and metal parts”

          There’s No Doubt about that in my mind. After twenty-something years of parking my vehicle outside, and parking her vehicle inside, it’s Very Very obvious.

          I never was in the, “how-much-a-month” club, so I never got into the two car garage club.

    • A4 platform VW’s (Beetle, Jetta, Golf) have simple, cable-operated HVAC damper doors. Should be no problems, right? Not so fast, they covered the metal air diverter doors with foam that falls apart in the heat and humidity! Oh, and the doors have big holes in them, so once the foam falls apart, the airflow cannot be diverted any more, and the defroster stops blowing, the A/C vents stop blowing…and you get bits of oily foam spitting out the floor vents at you.

      The factory solution is to remove the dashboard, discharge the A/C, drain the heater, and remove the heater box, then R&R the doors. Minimum $2000 cost. The redneck version (VW Vortex to the rescue!) is to remove the center console, and cut a hole in the heater box, and apply metal foil tape to the doors, then glue the bit you cut out back in. Maximum $10 cost.

      Sometimes I think those VW engineers spent time at the gasthaus drinking much apfelwein before designing. Same with those Nissan goobers and that little stoplight nubbin, too much sake before designing. I can verify from experience that problem STILL exists as of the 2007 model year Nissans.

      • Crusty,
        I have a MK4 Jetta (fun car to tool around in) and have the dreaded foam shooting out of the vent…on my list of repairs!
        Mk4 Jettas are much easier to work on than my 2004 Touareg…what a bear that is to repair!

        • The foam repair seems harder than it is. Took me ~1 hour total on an 02 Beetle. There are a couple good writeups on VW Vortex IIRC. Aluminum foil duct tape is your best friend in this operation.

          Yep, I love the A4 platform, good balance of ease of maintenance, handling, and peppy drivetrains. The 1.9L ALH TDI is surprisingly peppy, and very easy to work on.

          Oh yeah, I bet that big VW SUV is a PITA, like most Audis or Bimmers, too.

  13. I feel your pain Eric. I have a 2004 Frontier – same generation as your 2002.

    I hop my brake light switch plastic nipple never lets go.

    It has 180,000 miles of Michigan roads on it, so I recently replaced all the steering and suspension parts: Ball joints, control arm bushings, shocks, tie rod ends, anti-roll bar bushings and links, etc. I even did the rear leaf spring bushings.

    While this was all apart – I also replaced the brakes, wheel bearings, etc.

    What a job. Every single bolt had to be cut off. 2 Roll bar bushing bolts broke off in the frame so I had to Helicoil 2 of these. The guy at the machine shop (where I took my arms to have new ball joints and bushings pressed in) commented “Jesus – this thing fought you every step of the way – didn’t it”

    Yes it did

    I have come to the conclusion Nissan must use cheap fasteners. I’ve had a lot less trouble on similar jobs on much rustier cars. My truck is pretty clean from a rust standpoint.

    By the way – if you ever need to replace your lower front control arm bushing (assuming you also have the 2.4L 2WD), I have the adapter you’ll need to press it out of the frame. Talk about a PIA.

    The plus side – it rides like new now.

    Now I know why the shop wanted $3,800 to replace $800 worth of steering and suspension parts.

    • There is a penetrating oil that beats all others hands down. Kroil will try to crawl out of the can if you leave the lid off. It has gotten things loose that I was convinced were hopeless.

  14. Hi Eric!
    Hahaha, as I read your words “The problem becomes how to keep the brake pedal down while simultaneously getting down – and back underside the dash”, I said to myself, “You need a 2×4”, and just about spit coffee through my nose upon scrolling down further! You, sir, are a man after my own heart! My sons have developed my finely tuned sense of knowing just how annoying automotive engineers and their DTF methods are as well, they often quote my mechanics maxim: “First, remove the body. Then remove the engine, the part you need to replace will, at that point, be accessible”! It seems as though the newer things get, the worse they become, but I have had my share of shenanigans wrenching on old iron as well. The bolt through the pedal hole was brilliant (and cheaper, I would imagine), I replaced the vacuum heater valves on my old diesel truck with brass, 1/4 turn, water shutoff valves, keeps that hot coolant out of the heater core all summer, and probably won’t have to replace them in my lifetime, and also replaced the leaky vacuum manifold, which controls the heater, trans VRV and the brake booster (an obsolete Ford part now), with a pvc pipe and brass fitting fabrication that works as good as the original! I envision my self blasting down the road, armed to the teeth during the Zombie Apocalypse, running my old oilburner by draining everybody elses automatic transmission fluid, their computerized beehives parked permanently by an EMP, dodging the diapered demons, the pureblood coursing through my UNmodified RNA veins!

    • “First, remove the body. Then remove the engine, the part you need to replace will, at that point, be accessible”!

      Hilarious! That is a Great line. I’ll probably remember that one – forever – & apply it many times.

      • I also like,” Just jack it up and slide a new one under it…”

        One of the nice things about driving beaters is you don’t worry about cutting a hole in the trunk to access the in-tank fuel pump, cutting holes in the firewall to access impossible bellhousing bolts, cutting holes in the frame to access broken/rusty captive nuts, or as noted above cutting a hole in the HVAC housing to get at the broken plastic blend door. Just remember to keep the cutout piece and find a reasonable way to fasten it back in.

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