By Jeff Sanford
Toronto, Ontario -- December 14, 2015 -- With the rise of digitally controlled cars comes a new customization business—chip tuning. Rewriting a car’s proprietary software to improve performance and change emissions is a trend that has taken off around the world.
Some collision repair facility owners will want to ask: Is this a service I should offer? A couple of recent incidents have highlighted the practice. The recent VW scandal that saw the German automaker programming its cars to cheat on emissions tests has highlighted the possibilities around programmable cars. More importantly, in the United States, a recent court case has enshrined the right of vehicle owners to rewrite the software in their cars.
A couple of weeks ago the US Library of Congress ruled that car owners can customize the software that controls the performance of their vehicles. The Library oversees the US Patent Office. That organization said that once the sale of the auto takes place, the software was the property of the car-owner. As such, the owner can do what they want with the vehicle they bought, including the software. Auto companies challenged the ruling in court. The OEMs held that owners shouldn't be able to rewrite the software in their cars. The argument was that the software was copyrighted, and so owners couldn't tamper with it. The court disagreed. Owners can't copy the software and resell it, but they can rewrite the software, as it is their property post-sale. And so chip tuning is now perfectly legal in the US.
Could chip tuning become a much bigger practice in the years ahead? Perhaps. Here in Canada, there are at least a couple of dozen shops across the country that offer customized tuning. A tuner expert can rewrite the settings on events like spark plug timing and the air-to-fuel ratio. This can increase performance, but there are other tuning options as well. Some tuners tighten emissions, so-called eco-tuning. Others take a different tack. An odd trend sees some truck owners tuning chips to allow so-called “coal rolling,” which is the practice of modifying diesel pickup trucks so that the amount of fuel going to a vehicle’s engine is increased, creating plumes of black smoke. This is the desired result. The black smoke is funneled through big chrome smokestacks attached to the back of the cab for purely aesthetic purposes.
Most chip tuning, however, is done to tweak engine performance. One shop offering the service is Eurosport Tuning in Oakville, Ontario. The owner of the shop, Frank Derks, says most of his customers are not local, but come from across North America. His shop reprograms car with a tuning box that plugs into a computer port on the vehicle.
“We send the software loader to the client. They plug it in. The box reads what software is in the car, and then loads that up to a desktop computer,” says Derks. Logging on, he then works on the car remotely from Oakville. The tuning process itself is done over the Internet. “It's been all right. We do a lot of Volvos, VWs, some BMWs. It depends on the tuner. Some are geared more toward the European models, some towards the domestic models.”
Digital-rights activists such as those at the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been pushing for the right to “jailbreak” mobile phones and reprogram video games. These groups applauded the Patent Office’s decision to allow owners the right to customize their cars software. Environmental regulators and carmakers warned that the courts decision will see more auto pollution in the air as owners modify their vehicles for higher performance. But the digital rights activists see chip tuning as a basic right. They also point out that while it is true that some hackers may reprogram to fool emissions testing equipment, others are tuning their cars to emit even fewer emissions than what was the case when the car came out of the factory.
A company from Sanford, Florida, Drive Systems, reprograms engine computers in ways that improves fuel efficiency while reducing emissions. So there could be positives here. But it seems the days of chip tuning are here to stay. Some shops are now advertising truck tuning for semis and agriculture tuning, where tractors are customized. This seems to be a trend that is catching on. At least one provider of these boxes, Upsolute, claims 102,527 cars have been customized with its device.
Is it time to hire a hacker for your shop? It just might be.