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The Re-Invention of Engine Management Modification

A very personal - albeit highly justified - viewpoint.

by Julian Edgar

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The world is a changing place - a truism. And the automotive world is an ever more rapidly changing place - almost as obvious. But perhaps what isn't so obvious is that we're now witnessing a major change in the way in which automotive modification will need to take place. What made perfect and intelligent sense even five years ago is now a stupid thing to do.

But before discussing the here-and-now, perhaps some context.

A Long Time Ago...

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I first became seriously interested in modifying cars about 15 years ago. Here in Australia the newly released performance car that was challenging stereotypes was the Holden VL Commodore Turbo. Equipped with a 150kW SOHC Nissan 3-litre turbocharged in-line six, it represented a major shake-up in the technology available to the mythical 'average man' - the one with a family but still a heavy right foot. In an era where 'turbo' and even 'fuel injection' (let alone engine management!) represented technologies with which most Australian workshops were quite unfamiliar, it was a time of very rapid change.

I know - in 1988 I bought a two-year-old VL Turbo Berlina sedan. And then found a widespread ignorance about what could be done to the car.

Sure, in those days there were intercooler kits available. But they were hugely expensive and very often ludicrously tiny (eg easily fitting into the front guard). Sure there were engine management modifications available - almost all based around the very simple fooling of sensors or the adding of extra injectors. Sure you could upgrade the turbo - but back then not one single workshop could clearly show me the power difference this swap made! Gulp!

I built myself a unique, copper-cored intercooler, added extra injectors (almost certainly un-needed but then there were no such things as cheap mixture meters - in those days even chassis dynos were rare and expensive to access), lifted the boost and then found the auto trans wasn't up to the task. At that time, there wasn't a single shift-kit available for that trans anywhere in the world - or one that I could find, anyway. (No internet back then too!) Instead, I overhauled the auto and designed my own shift-kit, actually having the new spool valve springs made to my own specs.

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The VL Turbo was preceded by the first of the Japanese turbo cars, and was followed by a helluva lot more. Even the big boofy Australian V8s were moving to engine management - and people were then running right into a brick wall. How to make the 'brain' do what it was supposed to do when running big cams, big turbos, big intercoolers... People were finding that the new generation of engines were mechanically incredibly strong - literally doubling the power output was possible on some of these designs without changing many of the mechanical bits. And that was simply stunning when previously hundreds of hours had been typically spent in 'blueprinting' engines - basically taking out the sloppy build tolerances. But the new engines were effectively blueprinted as standard...

Programmable Management

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The modification breakthrough was in the development of cost-effective programmable management systems. I believe that in Australia we led the world - AFAIK the Haltech programmable ECUs were the very first systems designed to be aftermarket fitted to allow the tuning of fuel and ignition parameters. I well remember seeing for the first time the marriage of one of these hi-tech, unbreakable modern engines with full programmable management. It was the first Autronic system and it was running a RB30ET pushing out around 450hp on the engine dyno. Quite seriously, at that time some other workshops claimed that this power output was simply impossible from the 3-litre engine. It was just rubbish, they said....

Then came high-speed accurate air/fuel ratio meters, a booming popularity in chassis dynos - and a plethora of other aftermarket management names covering everything from awful systems good for running nothing but (not peripherally ported!) rotaries, to systems good enough to be sold to professional level motorsport teams around the world.

It was at this time - my Commodore finally back on the road complete with what today could be regarded only as the most trivial of mods - that I started writing for modified car magazines. And if there was one thing that was crystal clear in my mind, it was the need to push readers towards programmable management. In article after article I stressed that getting lots of reliable power could only come with a box you could have tuned; back then if you had a road car that was neat and had a MoTeC or Autronic or Haltech you were almost guaranteed a magazine spot.

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My other campaigns were based around cold air intakes (literally 90 per cent of modified cars then had a gloriously exposed filter sucking hot air from under the bonnet) and telling people that yes, you could get good results with engine management. (Again, as a sign of the times, it wasn't unknown for people to rip off all the injection and put a couple of carbs on the engine... even a 20-valve Toyota 4AG that I knew of experienced this fate!)

I did a lot of stories with a workshop that used (again, for back then) what was a very sophisticated data gathering and control system for their engine dyno, and whose major work was based around fitting and programming the new breed of engine management systems on everything from pushrod V8s to stove-hot rotaries. The man was Craig Allan and the engineering shop Allan Engineering in South Australia - the results that they gained from the combination of great management, careful tuning and a real mechanical genius were simply phenomenal.

Programmable management was definitely the way to go in modified machines...

Chips

Although I was working full-time as a secondary school teacher I was by then freelancing for around a dozen magazines, including ones in the UK and US. And that meant I was hungry for stories - always looking for new things to cover. So when I was invited to test a re-programmed management chip I eagerly accepted. The company seemed genuine, and if there appeared to be a rather glaring lack of real-time air/fuel ratio readouts and the engine dynos I was used to seeing - well, there's more than one way to skin a cat.

The first drive of a 'chipped' car was a tad disappointing - I tested the naturally aspirated Honda Civic on the road to find that the differences were awfully marginal, although they were measurable. I wrote the story, the company was pleased, and I did more stories with them. I even asked for a test chip to suit my then girlfriend's car - a Pulsar Vector SSS with the Holden 1.8-litre engine. I fitted the plug-in chip, went for a drive - and could measure zero performance difference. I told the company about the results - hey, we were on pretty good terms - and they gave me another couple of chips to try. But they made no difference either. On this car, the provided products simply didn't work. Hmmmm. By that time I was writing a column in a major four cylinder performance magazine, and in a couple of paras in that column I described exactly how I had tried and tested the chips - and the results I'd gained.

Just prior to publication the chip company got wind of my column and went ballistic. They tried to have the magazine print run stopped, talked about serving an injunction - and stopped talking to me.

I then started following very closely the results of other one-size-suits-all chip tests - and conducted some more of my own. And this is what I clearly found: most of these chips, unless they were fitted to a turbo car and the boost was turned up electronically by the chip, did nothing for performance. (The best chipped car that I'd ever driven from the aforementioned company had been one that altered the auto trans shift points - to this day, I still think there's an enormous untapped market in transmission chips!)

Approaches

The situation seemed clear - I'd seen fully programmable aftermarket management systems work time and time again, whereas the "this will hot up your car, mate" over-the-shelf chip had done bugger-all. I pushed that perspective in my articles for years - until I received a phone call from a company that was using real-time re-programming software that had been privately developed for the GM-Delco factory management system. They were doing chips, but they thought they were very different to the ones I was describing. In fact, they were pretty upset about my clearly expressed perspective against chips. So? From my point of view that just meant that they joined lots of chip companies that hated my guts. But this particular workshop wanted to do more than that - they invited me to watch their real-time programming with this 'breakthrough' software.

And I did. And it was a bloody breakthrough...

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The software was Kalmaker (developed by the unsung genius Ken Young) and the results that were able to be gained from modified Holdens was simply outstanding. The man who had rung me was Leon Vincenzi and his workshop - Awesome Automotive in Adelaide, South Australia - was doing great things. I was so blown away with the software's capability that I even bought a car just so that I could modify it and he could re-program the factory management. That stove-hot Holden Camira (a wagon!) gave me and my partner a lot of fun over the years. She loved it and - well, I thought it was pretty damn good too.

On the basis of real evidence I'd changed my views - and so I changed my writings. Now a heavily modified car needed either the fitting of fully programmable aftermarket management, or if it was a Holden, the use of Kalmaker software to tune the factory engine management real-time on the dyno. It was in this frame of mine that I wrote this in my book, 21st Century Performance:

If you buy a brand new, hi-tech, expensive car, and decide that you want to double the power output, head straight towards programmable engine management and full engine dyno tuning. That way you will get excellent driveability, superb power and very good reliability.

And then, in the section on chips:

A remapped standard engine management system on a modified car can work absolute wonders for both power and response. [But] using a complete software package, the chip needs to be re-mapped in real time on the dyno with your car on the rollers. That way, individual fuel and ignition sites can be identified and then mapped to give the very best results. If your engine needs a little more fuel at a manifold vacuum of X and an engine rpm of Y, the programmer can give it what it needs. If the compression ratio is a little higher in your engine (either because you have made it that way or it was always a good 'un from the factory), the engine management programmer can pull back the timing over that which he/she would normally use in this engine. This sort of custom, blueprinted chip designed expressly for your car is utterly different from an over-the-counter one-size-suits-all item.

I thought very carefully before writing this section of the book - I take the journalistic responsibility of advising people very seriously indeed. After all, it's your money...

So why this long preamble: what actually has now changed? Well, basically, over the last couple of years, a helluva lot.

Chips Again

One of my major problems with the way in which chips were done - even real-time on the dyno - was that the chip cookers simply couldn't access very many of the engine management maps. Even the simplest of the Kalmakers (that's the breakthrough software for Holdens, remember) could access about 300 separate maps or variables, whereas re-writing a chip normally involves accessing maybe a max of 15 maps. It's a bit like claiming to know the contents of an encyclopaedia while only being able to read 1 per cent of the pages.

Or, as I famously put it to Lachlan Riddel of the Australian chip re-writing company ChipTorque in an AutoSpeed interview:

A rather cruel analogy of this process is that you're in a dark room with a large animal. You can't see the animal, but you're equipped with a pin. It seems to me to be an extraordinarily random way of going about learning how something - with perhaps 5000 variables - by dragging one up at a time and seeing what happens. You're pricking the elephant in that dark room - but whether you've got his nose, or whether his eye you don't know..... He yells each time - analogous to the fuel getting richer each time - but you don't really know why the fuel gets richer. You don't know where you're poking the pin....

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His reply was lacking in the bullshit I normally associated with chip-cookers:

I appreciate the analogy..... I'll be honest and say that off the top of my head, I can't quickly give you a better one that more describes the process that I use. (But) if I felt as blind as the analogy that you have described, I wouldn't start the job.

And so I started pondering my philosophical position.

Then when Riddel was happy for me to actually sit in a car and watch him real-time tuning using an emulator (although yes, able to access only a relatively limited number of tuning maps), my appreciation of what he could actually do started to change. Having now watched him in detail tune perhaps a dozen cars (hey, we're finally up to the present!), and given that the context of factory engine management has changed so very considerably in the last two or so years, I think that it is now appropriate that I alter considerably in my views that I present to you.

The New Era

Here is a simple and uncontrovertible truth: On current high performance road cars, aftermarket programmable engine management systems are now so way out of their depth that they're largely irrelevant.

The writing's been on the wall for years, but now it's not just meandering philosophical graffiti but something that has a hip pocket impact. And why is this the case? Well, it's because factory management systems - and indeed, whole cars - have become so much more sophisticated so quickly.

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Ten or fifteen years ago, the factory engine management computer had only a handful of functions - fuel, timing and idle speed control. With such a limited ability, replacing the system with a programmable aftermarket system was straightforward. But new cars are now simply nothing like this. A modern performance car is much more likely to have a management system that also controls the throttle, cam timing, turbo boost, automatic transmission, traction control, cruise control - and in addition, communicates with the security system, dashboard, ABS, and trip computer.

There is no single aftermarket management system available in the world that even comes close to being able to perform all of these functions. So if you turf the factory management, it's likely that the dash won't work, the traction control function will be gone (not to mention stability control), the trans will need to have a new operating system (and again, AFAIK there aren't any programmable aftermarket auto trans controllers in existence), the trip computer will be permanently sick - it goes on and on.

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Previously, a partial solution has been to piggy-back a programmable ECU on top of the factory system. In this way just fuel and ignition are controlled by the new management computer, with the rest of the functions looked after by the factory system. But that isn't going to work very well anymore either - again the traction control and stability control will be gone, the trans computer won't be receiving the correct signals from the factory management system, and the trip computer will be disabled. More seriously from an engine durability perspective, you'll almost certainly lose active knock sensing as well.

Basically, if you fit a programmable management computer to a late model road car you are likely to be substantially downgrading the functionality of the car.

I can't see any change in this situation occurring, either. While technically it's possible to produce fully programmable aftermarket management systems that can perform nearly all of these OE functions, the cost of fitting and programming the system would be completely prohibitive. Don't believe me? Well, how long do you think it would take to map an electronic throttle control to give anywhere near factory driveability? How long do you think it would take to program the knock sensor sensitivity and signal interpretation to suit a particular engine? Where are you even going to find the skills required to program a dedicated auto trans controller - let alone set up a stability control system?

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The short answer is that it would take a normal workshop literally years and cost more than the car is worth.

The only way of retaining factory functionality in a modified car is going to be to stick with the factory management system as the fundamental - re-writing portions of the original software, and the use of interceptors, are going to be the only two effective ways of engine management modification.

The BA Falcon

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In just the same way as the VL Commodore Turbo caused an on-going and radical revision in workshop engine management modification strategies, the newly released BA Falcon turbo is very likely to do the same. If you haven't been following our stories, this engine represents a radical technological leap in the domestic marketplace, and one that realistically will put most workshops way out of their depth. Not only does the Falc run electronic throttle control, it has steplessly adjustable cam timing on both the intake and exhaust cams, a dual-stage changeover manifold, and turbocharging. It is, quite literally, one of the most sophisticated six cylinder engines in the world.

I write this just days after spending time driving the turbo Falcon - an opportunity that was also used to show the car to a number of workshops. In a significant number of cases, when the Falcon's bonnet was lifted the workshop staff simply didn't understand what they could see. "Pretty good for old Henry," they sneered, and "OK, OK I understand it's got variable valve timing [but so what?]" were common refrains.

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It's the VL Turbo all over again - but with a twist. Ten and fifteen years ago those workshops that were using engine and chassis dynos and were fitting the new generation of programmable management systems were kings. Now, those same workshops - who in most cases have continued to do exactly the same type of work - will be totally lost. Instead it will be the workshops that have developed real skills in factory software re-writing that will be in a unique position to capitalise on the development of this complex engine. And there is of course an 'in-between' step - the use of interceptors is sure to be popular, although how effective they actually prove to be will be another question.

After all, only a total loser would suggest that the cam timing maps will remain optimal with the power output lifted, or that the car would drive much better with the electronic throttle replaced by a cable operated design...

Conclusion

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The modification of the engine management of current cars will need to be fundamentally based around the retention of as much as possible of what is already there. The best approach will be the re-writing of small elements of the factory software, or the interception and alteration of input and output signals. The latter is fundamentally a much poorer approach (you can't change the sensitivity of the knock sensor, for example), but until the software code of new cars is at least partially cracked there won't be any other realistic options. The days of programmable management being the way to go are simply finished.

How times have changed...

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