Now that BMW is using twin turbos on so many of its vehicles, it is paving the way, now more than ever, for aftermarket tuners to be able to improve vehicle performance using electronic/software modifications rather than swapping of parts. This influx of vehicle tuning solutions has led to quite a lot of confusion amongst end users. This write up will help to clarify the mysteries behind software tuning and get you answers to the many questions that you undoubtedly have.
What is software tuning?
Modern vehicles, since the 1990s and even before, in an attempt to improve fuel economy and emissions, have been equipped with engine management computers “ECU” (Engine Control Unit). These computers would use a series of sensors placed at various locations throughout the engine to get real time feedback on environmental,engine parameters and performance and then issue the appropriate modifications to instructions in order to ensure your vehicle's engine runs efficiently, smoothly and reliably.
For example, there is sensor in the intake manifold that measures the temperature and flow rate of air. This information would be fed into to the ECU, and along with information coming from the accelerator pedal, traction control systems, transmission, etc., and the ECU will instruct the fuel injection system about how much fuel to inject into the cylinders to create the power needed to comply with the driver's commands.
For every set of inputs, there is a predictable output from an ECU. The ECU uses pre-programmed mappings from the factory to determine what the specific output will be given a set of inputs. If one of the inputs is changed, the corresponding output will be altered accordingly. At the time that these mappings (or maps) are created, the manufacturer has many constraints, coming from many departments: marketing wants the most power for the least amount of fuel, government wants the minimum amount of emissions per mile driven, the user experience team wants a certain sound and ride feel from the engine, the warranty department wants the engine to run as lightly as possible so that components outlast the warranty period.
All of these influences require compromises. Not every driver has the same priorities, but everyone ends up with the same engine management software. Maybe you are not concerned with losing 0.7MPG if it means shaving time off your quarter mile. Maybe you don’t care if the ride is a little rougher or if you need to change your injector coils every 5 years instead of 6. This is where software tuning comes in.
The end goal of a software/hardware tune is to change the mappings inside the ECU. That way, for a given set of input parameters, a more performance oriented output will occur, ie. increase turbo boost, change timing, inject more fuel, increase RPM, etc. Different vendors will make decisions based on their own philosophies about which maps they want to change, and how much they want to change them.
Kinds of tuning
First off, it is important to understand the difference between the two possible types of tunes. There are prepackaged tunes and custom tunes.
Prepackaged tunes overwrite your ECU maps with new maps that are improved, but are generalized in nature, meaning that you will have the exact same maps as everyone else who is running that same tune.
Custom tunes are where the software company takes a copy of your CURRENT maps and adaptations, and modifies those maps before sending them back to you for loading. This ensures the highest level of compatibility with your vehicle and allows the tuner to use a more aggressive tune consistent with the properties of your vehicle.
Custom tunes also have the benefit of being able to compensate inside the tune for any other modifications you have done to the vehicle. ie: intake, exhaust, headers, catalytic converter removal, etc. This will squeeze extra horsepower out of these modifications because the ECU now becomes aware of the less restrictive components on the engine.
Methods of Updating Software
PC Based Updaters
These involve purchasing a PC-based update tool such as the Active Autowerke Flash Station, Active Autowerke Simon Tool, ESS E-flash, VF Hex Flash, or similar tool. Using this tool and your PC, you will download your existing engine software into the tool, or into an application on your computer. This file gets sent to the software provider, along with a list of engine modifications, who will optimize the mappings specifically for your vehicle and configuration. The file is returned several hours later, and the same tool and software is used to upload the software into your ECU.
The final method for tuning these engines, is by using a piggyback controller, such as the Active Autowerke Active-8, the Berger Juice Box, Remus Powerizer, etc. These boxes do not actually touch your software mappings at all, rather, they modify the signal going into the ECU from the various sensors. The manipulation of these signals exploits the predictable nature of the ECU, and causes it to output signals which generate the desired performance improvements.
The drawback to piggyback controllers is that the tuner cannot manipulate anything that doesn’t directly relate to a sensor. This limits the programmers ability to make the most optimal tune possible
Which Tune Options Do I Have For My Car?
Prior to the introduction of twin turbo engines, in the “BMW world” we’re talking about the age of the E36, E39, E46, etc. there was really only one way to do software tuning. In order for software to get changed inside an ECU you had two choices -- either remove and mail your ECU to a tuning house who would use specialized equipment to overwrite the maps, OR you would bring your vehicle to an authorized service center, who would connect their special equipment to your OBD2 port and overwrite the maps that way. Back in these days, there were only so many parameters that could be changed inside these maps, therefore, performance gains of, say, 20 horsepower were quite respectable, after all, you didn’t need to bolt anything onto the car.
As BMW has continued developing new vehicle technologies, and engine management systems have become more sophisticated, PLUS in a large part due to the addition of turbochargers onto their engines, the potential for much larger gains has become realized simply due to software tuning.
In the previous generation of vehicles (as of this writing) notably, the E90/92, E60, E82, E70, etc. there became three new options for engine tuning. Not only could you mail your ECU to a software provider, or go to an authorized service center to load the software using their systems, now you could load software from home using a handheld loader, a PC loader or, use a hardwired method by installing a piggyback controller onto the ECU.
In the newest generation (the F generation) such as the F30/32, F80/82, F20/22, etc. these vehicles have locked ECUs. In an effort to get owners to stop modifying its vehicles, BMW has put encryption and security into this newest generation of ECUs. This makes programming through conventional means (such as OBD loaders impossible). Therefore, only two solutions are left, sending your ECU for modification or using a piggyback solution. We strongly urge you to stay away from sending in F-series ECUs. The only way to modify these ECUs are to open them up, breaking the waterproofing and warranty seals, and physically attaching wires to microchips to force the chips to take the new maps. Given that current ECUs are more powerful than home computers, they can cost thousands of dollars. Opening them up gives very clear evidence of tampering to BMW who may choose to invalidate your warranty. Therefore, for these vehicles, piggybacking a solution onto the ECU is the way to go. The ECU and its software is unchanged, it just receives a modified input signal to trigger a modified output signal.
How To Choose A Software Provider?
When choosing a piggyback solution, look at the hardware that vendors are using. A quick way of evaluating the potential quality of the tune is to look at how many sensors the unit plugs into. In general terms, a unit that plugs into eight sensors has the potential to modify more signals than one that only plugs into three.
The other thing to look at when choosing a piggyback solution is the quality of the microprocessor. Usually these piggyback kits are a wiring loom attached to a black box. Inside this box there is a microprocessor, similar to what you may find in a computer or mobile phone. Just like when you use a slower computer, you get less done than when you use a faster computer, a faster processor inside your piggyback unit will allow for more manipulations to be done every second. Look for a piggyback solution that has a fast processor, and ideally one that is at least 32 bit. 8 bit processors are older technology and cannot sample quickly enough to give the best performance to your vehicle.
While it is tempting to choose the software provider that yields the most power from your vehicle, or the one that has the best price, recall that this is a very expensive vehicle you are going to be loading this software into. A vendor with inexpensive software may not have taken the time (or done the hundreds of required dyno runs) to properly test, optimize and validate the software, yielding an unsafe driving condition or a sub-optimal tune. A vendor that proclaims to create a huge amount of power may have tweaked the maps outside of a zone where they are considered safe. This could stress components, or cause other kinds of damage -- damage that may not present itself for years.
Remember that you are putting the fate of your vehicle, your safety and potentially tens-of-thousands of dollars in repair costs into the hands of a software provider. Ensure that the software provider is a well established, trusted company, that stands behind their work, and that specializes in BMW tuning. There are many independent garages, individual operators or companies from China who offer huge amounts of power at very low costs, or one-solution-fits-all products, but be vigilant - ensure you fully evaluate the safety of their solutions before proceeding.
Warranty + Dealer Service Concerns
If your vehicle is under warranty, choice of tuning method is particularly important. There are two main points to consider here. First: if you have a warranty problem, and BMW looks at the ECU and realized there is unauthorized software inside, they may refuse to cover the problem under warranty. Alternatively, on occasion BMW will issue a software update for your car, introducing new changes or optimizations or restrictions, and may load this software into your ECU without your knowledge or permission. This will overwrite the software tune that you purchased. For either of these reasons, it is desirable to have a removable solution for when you take your vehicle to the dealership.
Injector Coils & Other Failures
Running modified software in your vehicle asks all the components of your engine to work a little harder. As you may be aware, BMW is notorious for having marginal quality injector coils. Especially when tuning an older vehicle, understand that any part that is nearing the end of its life may be asked to perform beyond its capabilities and may fail. After updating your software it is not uncommon for something to fail in your vehicle, such as the injector coils. These parts would have failed anyway within months, but the tune exasperates their deficiencies and causes them to fail sooner than without. If you get a tune and have some sort of engine problem shortly afterwards, most likely this is not a result of faulty programming, rather, an advancement of failure in components which were close to their end of life anyway.
Software Tuning Products from Bimmian Automotive Inc
Bimmian Automotive Inc has everything you need to boost your BMW's performance. We maintain an inventory of parts specifically engineered to elevate your BMWs performance to its optimum potential. Everything from air intakes to brakes and exhausts to intercoolers and superchargers that are sure to give your BMW the performance edge!
Sprint Booster Throttle Remapper
Make your BMW throttle more responsive, and your vehicle feel faster. This throttle remapper compensates for the lag of the drive by wire system. The Sprint Booster Drive-By-Wire Throttle Delay Eliminator is a fully-reversible, quick and easy to install modification for your vehicle that will greatly improve the way the vehicle feels to the driver.
Increase your throttle response in Sport Mode or increase fuel efficiency in ECO mode with our Throttle Remapper. 7 Sport and 5 Eco settings ensure you get the right response from your pedal on the fly!
aFe Power Scorcher Module
The aFe Power SCORCHER Module is designed to alter the pressure sensor signals to increase turbo boost to an optimum level throughout the entire RPM range. The result is a harmonious balance between power, throttle response and drivability.
Active Autowerke Performance Software Tune
Don't get stuck with a tune that you can't remove! Have the ability to get extra power from your BMW, knowing that you can back up your tune, and restore to factory settings in minutes! Clear and reset codes! -- Also great for those customers who live far away from an Active Autowerke approved installation center.
16 Stage Throttle Remapper
Increase your throttle response in POWER Mode or increase fuel efficiency in ECO mode with a Throttle Remapper. 9 Power Sport and 5 Eco settings ensure you get the right response from your pedal at the push of a button.
The Remus Responder improves throttle response and driving dynamics! No more throttle delay and reduced lag during automatic shifting makes driving with the REMUS Responder more fun. The Responder attaches between the OEM pedal sensor and the OEM connector, ready to use in seconds due to plug and play technology. Sophisticated adjustable programming profiles can lead to improved fuel consumption and more efficiency. The 4 individual used selectable and adjustable performance settings allow drivers to select according to their own preferences. The REMUS responder totally eliminates the delay in modern electronic accelerator pedals.
Juice Box Performance Tuner
Squeeze extra horespower and torque from your turbocharged engine without any software modifications. Completely untraceable at the dealership. There Is No Tune More Powerful! BMW Performance Tuners feature easy installation with incredible horsepower and torque gain. Finally you can enjoy the car how it should have come from the factory!
The electronics of the REMUS Powerizer enhances in real time the engine management parameter. The engine mapping is optimized in excess of 1000 times per second and ensures for a considerable and noticeable power increase. The engine safety parameters and management remains totally original to ensure that individual engine components are not overstrained. Furthermore, the original mapping software remains totally untouched.
Active Autowerke Active-8 Tuning Box
Active Autowerke is happy to introduce the newest addition to our BMW software line-up, the Active-8 Tuning Box. With this direct plug-in BMW performance part, you can expect to experience 50+WHP gains and 47+ft-lbs of torque. No sending your unit for programming, this is a straight plug-in.
The AccessPORT is the device that enables recalibration of sensors and manipulation of data on the factory ECU. It provides the capability to reflash select segments of information that are stored in the computer that control engine function.
Plug & Play Engine Performance Enhancer
Increase your BMWs performance with a simple plug and play device that gives you amazing increases in horsepower and torque. This could be the most affordable way to get this much horse power! This unit is custom fitted for each vehicle. This means that there is no cutting of wires or soldering required. It does not void any warranties and can be unplugged in minutes. It is completely DIY. No need for a mechanic.
Active Auto Simon 3 Tune Programmer
Get tunes quickly without having to send in your ECU with Active Autowerke's Simon 3 tool. Fortunately, the days of helplessly waiting on your ECU to return are long gone - thanks to the newly released, all-new SIMON 3. The SIMON 3 gives control back to the user; to upload, update, and upgrade your BMW's software tuning. All you need is the SIMON 3, a laptop running Windows, and access to the internet for e-mail correspondence!
Split Second Turbo Tuner 2
Split Second announces the Turbo Tuner 2 for BMW 135i, 335i, and 535i applications. The Turbo Tuner 2 is a more advanced version of Split Second’s popular Turbo Tuner, a plug-and-play solution that significantly enhances performance. Typical gains of the Turbo Tuner 2 are 40 horsepower and 50 ft-lbs of torque. Both the Turbo Tuner and Turbo Tuner 2 are easily installed by users.