Aftermarket Programmable ECU
A special category of ECUs are those which are programmable. These units do not have a fixed behaviour and can be reprogrammed by the user.
Programmable ECUs are required where significant aftermarket modifications have been made to a vehicle's engine. Examples include adding or changing of a turbocharger, adding or changing of an intercooler, changing of the exhaust system or a conversion to run on alternative fuel. As a consequence of these changes, the old ECU may not provide appropriate control for the new configuration. In these situations, a programmable ECU can be wired in. These can be programmed/mapped with a laptop connected using a serial or USB cable, while the engine is running.
The programmable ECU may control the amount of fuel to be injected into each cylinder. This varies depending on the engine's RPM and the position of the accelerator pedal (or the manifold air pressure). The engine tuner can adjust this by bringing up a spreadsheet-like page on the laptop where each cell represents an intersection between a specific RPM value and an accelerator pedal position (or the throttle position, as it is called). In this cell a number corresponding to the amount of fuel to be injected is entered. This spreadsheet is often referred to as a fuel table or fuel map.
By modifying these values while monitoring the exhausts using a wide band lambda probe to see if the engine runs rich or lean, the tuner can find the optimal amount of fuel to inject to the engine at every different combination of RPM and throttle position. This process is often carried out at a dynamometer, giving the tuner a controlled environment to work in. An engine dynamometer gives a more precise calibration for racing applications. Tuners often utilize a chassis dynamometer for street and other high performance applications.
Other parameters that are often mappable are:
- Ignition Timing: Defines at what point in the engine cycle the spark plug should fire for each cylinder. Modern systems allow for individual trim on each cylinder for per-cylinder optimization of the ignition timing.
- Rev. limit: Defines the maximum RPM that the engine is allowed to reach. After this fuel and/or ignition is cut. Some vehicles have a "soft" cut-off before the "hard" cut-off. This "soft cut" generally functions by retarding ignition timing to reduce power output and thereby slow the acceleration rate just before the "hard cut" is hit.
- Water temperature correction: Allows for additional fuel to be added when the engine is cold, such as in a winter cold-start scenario or when the engine is dangerously hot, to allow for additional cylinder cooling (though not in a very efficient manner, as an emergency only).
- Transient fueling: Tells the ECU to add a specific amount of fuel when throttle is applied. The is referred to as "acceleration enrichment".
- Low fuel pressure modifier: Tells the ECU to increase the injector fire time to compensate for an increase or loss of fuel pressure.
- Closed loop lambda: Lets the ECU monitor a permanently installed lambda probe and modify the fueling to achieve the targeted air/fuel ratio desired. This is often the stoichiometric (ideal) air fuel ratio, which on traditional petrol (gasoline) powered vehicles this air:fuel ratio is 14.7:1. This can also be a much richer ratio for when the engine is under high load, or possibly a leaner ratio for when the engine is operating under low load cruise conditions for maximum fuel efficiency.
Some of the more advanced standalone/race ECUs include functionality such as launch control, operating as a rev limiter while the car is at the starting line to keep the engine revs in a 'sweet spot', waiting for the clutch to be released to launch the car as quickly and efficiently as possible. Other examples of advanced functions are:
- Wastegate control: Controls the behavior of a turbocharger's wastegate, controlling boost. This can be mapped to command a specific duty cycle on the valve, or can use a PID based closed-loop control algorithm.
- Staged injection: Allows for an additional injector per cylinder, used to get a finer fuel injection control and atomization over a wide RPM range. And example being the use of small injectors for smooth idle and low load conditions, and a second, larger set of injectors that are 'staged in' at higher loads, such as when the turbo boost climbs above a set point.
- Variable cam timing: Allows for control variable intake and exhaust cams (VVT), mapping the exact advance/retard curve positioning the camshafts for maximum benefit at all load/rpm positions in the map. This functionality is often used to optimize power output at high load/rpms, and to maximize fuel efficiency and emissions as lower loads/rpms.
- Gear control: Tells the ECU to cut ignition during (sequential gearbox) upshifts or blip the throttle during downshifts.
A race ECU is often equipped with a data logger recording all sensors for later analysis using special software in a PC. This can be useful to track down engine stalls, misfires or other undesired behaviors during a race by downloading the log data and looking for anomalies after the event. The data logger usually has a capacity between 0.5 and 16 megabytes.
In order to communicate with the driver, a race ECU can often be connected to a "data stack", which is a simple dash board presenting the driver with the current RPM, speed and other basic engine data. These race stacks, which are almost always digital, talk to the ECU using one of several proprietary protocols running over RS232 or CANbus, connecting to the DLC connector (Data Link Connector) usually located on the underside of the dash, inline with the steering wheel