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Chip Out: Electronic Tuning Turns Performance Retailing on its Head

Electronic tuning was called “the new face of the aftermarket” by more than one manufacturer Performance Business talked to for this story focused on chips, modules and programmers, and they all agreed eking 15 horsepower gains through intake or exhaust systems pales in comparison to the cost and ease of reprogramming a stock vehicle computer.

That’s all well and good, but what can you as an independent speed shop offer a customer when chips, chipping out, modules, tuners and downloaders are all terms thrown around as if they mean the same things?

Coming To Terms

Paul Darden of Jet Performance in Huntington Beach, Calif., summed it up best when talking of the differences in all the electronic tuning jargon being used around the water cooler today.

“A chip is something that is used commonly in an early GM vehicle, where you would remove the factory chip and install the aftermarket performance chip [in the Engine Control Unit or ECU],” Darden said. “I would consider a module to be an inline device that interacts with the factory computer, which is different from a programmer/tuner or downloader, which are different words used to describe the same basic thing, a device that changes the factory tuning via a software upload but does not have to be permanently installed.”

Darden went further by saying every speed shop owner out there can offer their customers value by having electronic tuning products and services as part of the product mix they offer at their bricks-and-mortar location.

“It’s a very simple, safe way to increase sales. There is no longer a ‘black magic, snake oil’ mystique with performance chips/module sales. It’s a proven performance product that allows the customer to see an increase in performance immediately. And, they work great as an add-on to other performance changes, such as exhaust or intake upgrades,” said Darden.

Software Performance

The bottom line with electronic tuning is your customers’ performance improves greatly whether they are looking for more horsepower and torque output for towing a trailer, pulling a fifth wheel up a long grade, passing another vehicle while on the highway or competing against your buddy at the local drag strip.

For diesel vehicles, power gains can reach over 100 horsepower higher than factory specifications, and for gas vehicles, power gains can reach over 40 horsepower higher than factory specifications. Add in improved fuel mileage along with crisper shift points, and electronic tuning should be an easy sell for a speed shop.

Mike DeFord of the diesel performance giant Bully Dog agrees that the performance tuning industry is nearly all in downloaders today.

“That’s not saying chips or modules are dead,” DeFord said. “On some early 2000 gas vehicles, they still offer big performance boosts. But on today’s late models…with their emission requirements that the OEs have to get under…downloaders are where it is at.”

Another way to think of it is that unlike an inline chip or module, a downloaded tuner is still using the stock sensors and ECU. They are merely reprogrammed, but in a sense, the original equipment is still in the vehicle.

“With a forced induction vehicle, we can realize a 230 horsepower gain at the wheels with a flash tune,” DeFord said. “That’s a huge, huge gain.”

So huge that Bully Dog’s “Crazy Larry” tune forces consumers to download the data, complete with warnings that adding that much power can break little things like the drivetrain. The big plus is this kind of horsepower can be had with a mere 10 minutes of work, work that doesn’t get the hands dirty. A simple plug into the OBDII port is all it takes.

Growing Stature

With their easy installation, bang-for-buck performance and instant gratification, software performance upgrades have quickly climbed in the esteem of enthusiasts.

DeFord pointed out, “We are hearing electronic tuning is beginning to cut into the sales of exhaust and intake products simply because it is so easy and cheap to do. Things like exhaust and intakes are largely starting to become aesthetic upgrades.”

This performance niche of software tuning for the aftermarket comes courtesy of the OEs, who are bound both by federal emission laws and the simple economics of producing a vehicle line that will please the greatest number of customers possible. In other words, the typical 40-plus male looking at a pickup to tow the family camper may not be interested in all the power a turbo-charged diesel motor can put out. Therein lies the term “factory capping” where modern motors are electronically detuned to offer the consistent, plain-Jane performance. Best thing is, those factory settings can be removed with software tuning to unleash the pure power available in today’s motors.

Unleashing the Power

Michael Schimmack, the lead research and tech guy at the electronic tuning giant Superchips, remembers the good old days of electronic tuning that would put an additional 150 horsepower at the wheels, “without a lot of tech work.”

Today, getting an additional 70 to 80 horsepower out of a late model diesel truck takes delicate coding balance work to keep the mass air sensor and all other emission sensing equipment happy. But with the OEs still working to satisfy the “middle of road” owner looking to pull a fifth wheel, it leaves a lot of engine to play with for the aftermarket.

One of the big advantages of a downloader is that on first plug-in, it will record the vehicle’s stock electronic settings, making it easy to reset a vehicle before taking it in to the dealer on lease trade in or for work.

“We have got to the point today where there is no footprint after a tune,” Schimmack said. “All that is tripped is the same error code that occurs when you interrupt a battery flow, and that goes away after a half-dozen starts on stock tuning. I tell our customers to reset to stock the morning before going in to the dealer, and by the time they drive the vehicle normally for a day, it is impossible to tell it was ever tuned with an aftermarket device.”

The flexibility of downloaders is also something speed shop customers appreciate, Schimmack said. Many models will allow for a custom tune to compensate for further aftermarket mods, such as when a cold air intake is added to their vehicle.

“We are working with nearly all aftermarket manufacturers to make sure the specs for their products are available for our downloaders. What that means is that a customer adding an AEM cold air intake can simply download a specific tune that takes the new intake into consideration to help maximize performance.”

Patrick Stajel of Sniper Tuning in Sanford, Fla., agreed that software-based tuners are what is hot now, and they will be in the future.

“Chips are old school, but that said, so are some guys,” Stajdel said. “There are a lot of performance enthusiasts running 1988 to 2004 year models, and chip sets are great for their needs.”

Nor does Stajdel think software-based tuning is going to limit the market for other performance modifications such as intake or exhaust.

“Sure it might make sense to do an electronic tune to a vehicle to gain horsepower fast, but a customer interested in performance is going to be interested in more than that. They will be willing to piggyback an intake or exhaust onto a tune. It all works together,” said Stajdel.

Picking Products

A speed shop that uses the custom tuning software available today will be adding big value to a customer. And, speed shops should be careful to not only understand the benefits of electronic tuning, but they should also take care when picking out product SKUs to offer their customers, according to Travis Cattach of Powerchip in Los Angeles.

“Chips aren’t just ‘chips’,” Cattach pointed out. “One of the main factors for retail customers to consider when making a decision about their vehicle’s performance is how they are covered in the event of a problem. For example, look for warranty and/or performance guarantees that state a customer will actually notice the performance difference after electronic tuning.”

So how is a typical downloader/programmer made? Best turn to the manufacturers themselves to answer that one. And here Performance Business turns again to Cattach at Powerchip.

“There are several key steps to take when designing software recalibrations. Powerchip has formulated a seven-step development process to reduce our workloads considerably and streamline the technology to make way for new model releases.”

  1. Reverse engineering the hardware
  2. Reverse engineering the software
  3. Emulating the real-time functions of the system
  4. Dynamometer testing
  5. On-road development and testing
  6. Consider aftermarket engine parts [separate program development.]
  7. Quality assurance and control

Cattach said that following these individual steps helps to reduce overlap between each model variant that is released. So for example, much of the time spent reverse engineering the hardware for a model, say a Porsche Carrera, can also be applied across to the Porsche Carrera S and/or turbo models without the need to “start over.”

It’s not a quick process.

“Most programs undergo hundreds of man-hours worth of testing and tuning, both on-road and on the dynamometer,” Cattach said. “Often, tunes are also developed to take advantage of aftermarket exhaust and intake changes, and this again requires a new round of R&D to take place.”

Speed shop owners should follow a similar process when questioning customers, Cattach says.

“In today’s techno-crazy way of life, many clients are well aware of the option to obtain more performance by tuning. More often than not, clients are likely to purchase from their local shop than directly from the manufacturer, as long as they are provided with enough sales material.”

Ready to Go

There are many names used to describe performance software tuning and its products: chips, modules, downloaders or flashes. But, the important thing to know about this area of the performance aftermarket is how to sell it.

After enthusiasts are made aware of the impact a chip might make on other parts and their vehicle’s warranty, they need to know how the product will affect performance. That’s when product knowledge comes into play. Either through the supplier or the WD you use, educate yourself on all of the ins and outs of the performance software products you sell. This will provide selling points for each product, and therefore improve sales for you and your staff.