In cooking chips, things have radically changed

Posted on December 20th, 2010 in Engine Management,Opinion by Julian Edgar

It’s interesting how things change. When I first started writing on the Web about cars, one area of modification concerned me a great deal – hot chips. No, not the sort you eat, but the sort that reorganise the engine management’s programming. In short, many of the chips for which people handed over lots of money simply did not work.

Back then, in the late 1990s, even the best people working in that area were simply making semi-random changes to code and then seeing what happened. The type of software available these days for many cracked factory engine management systems, where full maps are able to be viewed and tweaked in plain English, just didn’t exist. (The notable exception was Kalmaker for GM systems – literally a decade ahead of its time.)

So customers were handing over hundreds and hundreds of dollars for products that were often of no benefit. Some chip cookers retarded the mid-range timing before returning it to standard at the top end: that gave a sudden rush of power that convinced customers their cars were now going harder. Others started with a car that had been tweaked to perform worse than standard – and then fitted the original chip, so resulting in a ‘gain’. 

But when solutions for factory management problems were hard to find, and when the alternative comprised expensive, aftermarket, fully programmable engine management, chip cookers still did good business. Some were better than others: all to my mind were working way too much in the dark.

Here at AutoSpeed we sought to reveal some of what was going on by doing interviews with chip companies – interviews with Powerchip’s Wayne Besanko and also with ChipTorque’s Lachlan Riddel. Lachlan Riddel acquitted himself better in the interviews – and also had (and has) a much higher degree of technical knowledge than Wayne Besanko – but this exchange with Riddel is symptomatic of the level of knowledge that then existed in working out what parts of the code to change in order to gain a certain outcome:

AutoSpeed: A rather cruel analogy of this process [of modifying the software] 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….

Lachlan Riddel: 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.

In the interview with Wayne Besanko we found that the level of technical knowledge being brought to bear was minimal; some readers may have concluded that buying a Powerchip was not for them.

However, those interviews were carried out in 1999 and 2000 – a very long time ago. In the years since, the range of software tools available to tuners has massively improved. In fact, it’s not exaggerating to say that these days the software available to allow reprogramming of many (but not all) factory management systems allows better control of outcomes than the best programmable aftermarket systems could (and can) achieve.

So when I lived on the Gold Coast and ChipTorque was nearby, I was happy to ask the company to tune the modified EF Falcon six cylinder we developed as a cheap and cheerful AutoSpeed project car. The company knowledge, the software that was available to do the tuning and the achieved results all matched my expectations.

And when, just this month, I wanted my turbo diesel Skoda Roomster remapped (it runs the VW 1.9 PD engine), I was happy to approach Powerchip. The car’s modifications will be covered in detail this coming year in a full AutoSpeed series, but the results achieved by Powerchip’s Bill Ingram, working on the Queanbeyan dyno of ESP Racing with Glen Kelly driving, were outstanding.

Together with the intake and exhaust mods already undertaken, the Roomster remap has improved power and fuel economy while retaining absolutely factory driveability. I am amazed at just how good the outcome is – I rather expected a stutter or two, or black smoke, or at least some downside. But I cannot find a single tuning negative.  In this case the tuning software was extremely effective – and I might add that I was able to watch every tuning step being undertaken, and ask Bill (and have answered) whatever questions I wished.

Two points from all this.

Have things got better in terms of tuning cars? Yes, by a simply massive amount.

And should people assume that interviews that are more than a decade old reflect current company abilities? Well, that would be a pretty dumb thing to do…

Comments are closed.