Electronic knowledge is now a must-have in car modification

Posted on October 24th, 2004 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

One of the things I am conscious of in the articles that I write for AutoSpeed is that their thrust is more and more towards automotive electronics.

The articles vary from pretty simple – as I write this I have just completed a story on a do-it-yourself factory appearance alarm flasher – to complex, with the wiring-up of the traction control disabler which we covered in a series (starts at Modifying Electronic Car Handling Systems, Part 1) being an example of the latter.

I’ve always been interested in electronics and while I am not very skilled in the area, I can often come up with the concept of what I’d like an electronics project to achieve – and then other people can design it for me. But I do have enough knowledge to solder together simple kits, wire-up relays, and so on.

What concerns me is that for those that don’t have these basic electronics skills, much automotive modification being covered in AutoSpeed will be lacking in relevance. Well, that’s not quite true – our article readership stats show clearly there’s a helluva lot of people worldwide who are very interested in applying electronic modification ideas to cars.

But equally, our emails show that many people have difficulty in wiring these circuits up!

Our The World’s Best DIY Immobiliser story is incredibly popular – yes, nearly 6 years after it was first published. But it’s also a story about which we receive plaintive weekly emails. Sounds great, say the emails. I want to build one. But what’s a DPDT relay look like? How does a reed switch work? And so on.

Michael Knowling answers our emails but if I were writing the replies, I’d be tempted to be honest and brutal: if you don’t know what the components are, you’re probably not going to have the skills to build the circuit.

The electronics projects I have developed with Silicon Chip magazine (yes, I know… where are they? …they’re on the way in a full book) will be able to do car modifications radically cheaply. Like adjust mixtures, control boost, operate intercooler water sprays and so on. And the most expensive kit is only about AUD$80. Even if you buy a pre-built kit (they’ll be available but inevitably cost a lot more than doing it yourself) there will still be the necessity of wiring it to the car. I think that’s easy for every kit – but at minimum you’ll need to be able to use a multimeter and have a basic understanding of electrics.

The future in the majority of car modification will be through electronics. Whether that’s altering air/fuel ratios or ignition timing, changing auto trans shift characteristics, altering power steering weight, tweaking traction and stability controls, changing cam timing, or in the field of in-car entertainment, you won’t be able to do it without involving electronics.

Sure, while we’re still using internal combustion engines, getting a larger mass of air/fuel mixture into the cylinder as often as possible will result in more power. No doubt about it. But realistically, the techniques for doing that haven’t changed for a very long time. Intake mods. Exhaust mods. Forced induction. And if you do any of these on a current car without appropriate electronic mods, things are quite likely to go backwards.

Even the concept of jamming-in more fuel is potentially changing – if petrol/electric hybrids take off, it will be the altering of traction motor batteries and motor control circuits which will be the path to more performance. They may well not become popular, but if they do, electronics will literally be the only way of doing it.

Look, if you don’t know a thing about electronics and never want to, that’s fine. I hope that there will be plenty to enjoy in AutoSpeed for a very long time to come. But if you’re in a more ambivalent frame of mind – but you’re not confident with parts identification, can’t handle a soldering iron and don’t really have a good overall conceptual understanding of electrical fundamentals – I’d encourage you to learn. Buying and building a simple electronics kit is a good start, as is reading a basic electrical circuits book of the sort used in first year at technical colleges.

Because if you like do-it-yourself car modifications on other than classic cars, without electronics you’re pretty soon going to be very limited in what you can achieve…

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