How to make the move to an aftermarket ECU

J.G.
By J.G. Pasterjak
Jun 23, 2024 | Shop Work, ECU, Buyer's Guide, GRM+ | Posted in Shop Work , Electronics & Electrical Systems , Buyer's Guides | From the Nov. 2021 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Kevin Adolf

In less than a generation–so, in little more than a couple of decades–the image of an engine tuning expert has shifted completely. It used to be a guy in greasy overalls armed with a set of vacuum gauges and a great ear. Now it’s someone–maybe not even in the same room or state as the machine they’re tuning–hovering over a laptop that’s linked to a car’s onboard engine control computer. 

With the proliferation of computer-controlled powerplants, tuning is no longer done with a wrench and screwdriver, but with the adjustment of parameters controlled by the ECU.

But as the technology progressed, our desire to modify our engines with upgraded hard parts didn’t wane. Early computer engine controls–essentially glorified hardwired logic circuits with limited processing power–had some flexibility to adjust engine parameters to compensate for upgraded hard parts. However, many needed additional “piggyback” controllers wired into the circuit. A piggyback would alter the signal it received from a sensor before passing it along to the stock computer. It could also work in reverse, altering the signal from the stock computer before sending it to the sensors. 

Subsequent generations of factory engine controls added processing power and the ability to interact with the engine in real time. Where early computer controls were based heavily on tables predefined by factory engineers, later OEM ECUs could monitor engine data–like intake and exhaust temperature, engine temperature, throttle position and more–to make decisions on the fly. How much fuel and spark? When to fire that spark? The answers were based on how best to serve the driver’s wishes. 

All through the development of ECUs equipped by factories, a war with the aftermarket raged. When a manufacturer released a new car, it challenged the aftermarket to “crack” the ECU–to reprogram it to operate outside its typical envelope–allowing the use of aftermarket hard parts. 

And for a while, this system worked for enthusiasts. Many popular cars had, and continue to be equipped with, ECUs that can be “reflashed” or reprogrammed. For a lot of folks–those who simply want to add a performance exhaust, optimize their tune for high-octane fuel, or add a bit of boost to a turbocharged car–flash tunes in factory ECUs remain a solid choice.

But what if a build is more complex or more singularly dedicated? What if the owner simply wants more direct control over the 1s and 0s controlling their engine? That’s where aftermarket ECUs come in. 

These days, builders have numerous options for standalone engine management, and they’re easier than ever to install, tune and afford. From open-source software running on easily found hardware to military-grade solutions designed to endure the rigors of motorsport, the choices are endless. We’re here to help guide you on that journey.

Why Do You Need an Aftermarket ECU?

Got an engine in your car that it didn’t come with originally? Aftermarket ECU to the rescue.

Need to control or compensate for power adders that your car never came with, like turbos or superchargers or hog-ass cams? Hello, standalone.

Want deeper and more granular adjustability than reflashing your factory ECU gives you? An aftermarket ECU is in your future.

Does your car’s stock computer have very limited adjustability? (We’re looking at you, Honda and Acura and early Mazda Miatas.) Guess what? There’s an ECU for that.

“You know it’s time to consider upgrading your race car to a standalone ECU when what is controlling your engine and power adders is no longer effective,” explains Lawson Mollica at AEM Performance Electronics, a longtime supplier of standalone systems. 

He sees three typical scenarios that spur the jump to a standalone ECU. The first on his list: “The ’alphabet soup’ approach, where various controllers are added to a vehicle as it’s upgraded–air-fuel controller, boost controller, ignition controller, flashed ECU, etc.–and the user is left with a host of electronics that all need to be programmed independently of one another and do not speak with each other.” The frequent result, he notes, is major engine failure.

Two important pieces of the standalone recipe: a laptop and someone to use it. Photography Credit: Kevin Adolf

The next situation: “When a reflash or open-source tuning strategy exceeds the ability to control the power level of an engine.”

The last scenario is the outlier, he says, but can yield the greatest returns: “When someone has a longterm plan and invests in a standalone from the outset, they will never have to upgrade their electronics as they make upgrades to their vehicle. This rare breed of racer has the ability to learn the system while the vehicle is still being developed, making each upgrade easier to tune for.”

Why Don’t You Need an Aftermarket ECU?

Because they seem overwhelming? Okay, aside from that, there are legit reasons to not integrate some modern electronics into your build. 

For one, many newer cars have heavily integrated computer systems. A central computer provides not only ECU functions, but body control module functions as well. Having more power is cool, but not if your air conditioner no longer works or your factory alarm is always going off. 

And some modern cars integrate chassis management functions–like stability and traction control strategies–into their ECUs. This can complicate facilitation of a standalone ECU.

Ed Senf has been tuning race cars for decades–GRM first worked with him 20-plus years ago. For more involved projects–like BimmerWorld’s Bergsteiger BMW–Ed stresses the importance of the longterm relationship. Photography Credit: Kevin Adlf

“Owning a car equipped with a standalone ECU is a bit like having a child: There is a responsibility dynamic that most people aren’t initially aware of,” explains Shane Benson of AIM Tuning, a firm that specializes in remote tuning of the NA- and NB-chassis Miata. 

“OEMs spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars developing calibrations that will run on every version of that car in every conceivable condition. With a standalone ECU, it’s just us working on one specific car, probably when we have a few extra hours to mess around with it.”

Shane also notes that, with a standalone, you don’t have the advantage of starting with a factory tune. “Because of this,” he explains, “nailing down all the little details that make everyday drivability a pleasure can be a much greater challenge. Things like cranking and cold starts, after-start enrichments and warmup can take time because we really only get one or two shots at most per day. Closed-loop idle, acceleration enrichments, electrical loads, heat-soaked starting, EGO compensations, a/c idle up, etc., all need to be calibrated for our own specific vehicle.”

Long story short, consult the manufacturer of your proposed ECU before you start cutting wires. Chances are its engineers have experience with your intended application and can guide you toward the right answer.

How Much ECU Do You Need?

Here’s where things get tricky. The options are numerous and broad, and while you want to future-proof your build to some extent, there may be features in some high-end systems that you’ll simply never need.

So when ECU shopping, here are a few questions to consider about your application:

Can you use any of your existing sensors and wiring harness? Many companies offer plug-and-play options that leverage existing computer-controlled infrastructure and simply replace your computer with a more programmable one. Or will you need to run a dedicated harness and account for specific sensors that the computer needs to monitor?

What type of environment will your car be used in? As you climb the ladder from consumer-friendly systems to more motorsport-based solutions, one of the most visible improvements is the ruggedness of the actual equipment. 

Motorsport-grade ECUs live in weather- and shock-proof cases and are connected to the harness via military-style sealed connectors; the price will reflect that. Many high-end or motorsport ECUs also feature the ability to store multiple tuning maps that can be switched on the fly without needing a reboot of the computer. 

Want to add or reduce power at the flick of a switch, or change the way your engine delivers that power–say, for an unexpected, traction-reducing shower during a track session? No problem, provided you’re willing to buy the gear and properly program it.

How many things are you trying to control and monitor? At its most basic, an engine control computer is controlling fuel flow into the cylinders as well as the spark lighting that combustible mixture. But the number of inputs it considers when deciding how to adjust those fuel and spark settings can scale wildly. 

From the basic functions it needs to perform the most rudimentary aspects of its job—like monitoring crank position, intake temperature and throttle position–to more advanced feedback loops, an ECU can monitor nearly anything. 

A big question when considering a stand-alone system: Use the OE harness or wire the car from scratch? Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

Can you tune each cylinder individually? Sure, but you’ll need the proper hardware to monitor the parameters of that cylinder.

“The needs of each cylinder are unique due to multiple variables, but most commonly due to airflow and/or injector variances,” explains Jerry Hoffmann, founder of DIYAutoTune.com. 

“If you tune your turbo engine out to what you think to be a safe air-fuel ratio of 11:1 on gasoline, but you’re only looking at the average, that could mean one cylinder is running overly rich at 9.5:1 and washing down the cylinders while also down a bit on power and another cylinder is at 12.5:1, ready to melt down. In that scenario, you not only left a lot of power on the table, but you had the ability to make that power safely with a proper control system. Yet you chose not to.”

Can you limit boost based on which gear the transmission is in?  Of course you can, but the computer will need to know which gear the transmission is in. 

Traction control? That, too, but you’ll need a way to feed wheel speed data to the ECU so it knows when to cut power. 

All of these advanced scenarios are attainable with readily available hardware, but they require the proper sensor packaging and knowledgeable programming to facilitate their use.

Wait, I Have to Program It?

Well, yeah, and that’s the final bit of complication. Integrating an aftermarket ECU into your build may be physically simple, but getting it to run could be a more difficult proposition. 

The good news: Making power is probably one of the easiest functions to learn for someone with little tuning experience. Find the ideal air-fuel ratio for your chosen fuel type and go from there. 

But max power at full throttle is only part of the equation. “How many times have you heard the story about the guy who took his standalone-equipped car to the dyno and came back with a tune that made great numbers but started and drove like crap in any situation other than wide-open throttle?” asks Shane Benson of AIM Tuning. 

Interfaces and usability matter, too, since the system will need to be programmed. Before making a purchase, ensure that the system’s interface is a fit for your skill set. Photography Credits: J.G. Pasterjak

“It’s no fun fighting a car that doesn’t drive smoothly under all conditions,” he continues. “Learning and trial and error are part of the process, but it is well worth the effort. It’s hard to beat the satisfaction provided when the tune–your tune–purrs like a kitten simply cruising around town, and plasters a big ol’ grin across your face as you nail the throttle and are rewarded with instant performance gratification.”

Tuning a car for a broad torque band, drivability in a variety of conditions, cold starts and more takes a bit more finesse at the laptop. OEMs have many years and many millions of dollars to devote to these specific scenarios. You tuning a car in your garage has maybe two shots a day at getting a cold-start tune worked out.

Also remember that the point of an aftermarket ECU is to give the tuner complete control over engine function parameters–and that control must be exercised judiciously. Just as you can easily microwave a burrito so hot that it explodes, you can cause damage with improper ECU programming.

Expert Advice: Seek It

Ultimately, we don’t want to scare you off from taking the plunge on an aftermarket ECU. Fortunately, there’s an entire knowledge base out there waiting to help. 

And really, consulting those experts and the community wisdom for these products may be the best place to start. When installing a popular ECU in a popular car, you can typically find a base or “startup” tune online from a trusted source–sometimes even the ECU manufacturer itself. And with modern internet connectivity, not even geography prevents an expert from directly tuning your car.

Photography Credit: Chris Tropea

Ultimately, our best advice is, unless you’re an expert at these applications, don’t try and reinvent the wheel. Your first experience with an aftermarket ECU should not be the first time anyone has ever installed the system you want to install on the application you intend to install it on. Lean on the existing knowledge base as much as possible and get some suggestions from this gear guide. Happy tuning.

Case Study: Swapping our Corvette to a Standalone ECU

After deciding to LS-swap our already LS-powered Corvette, we had to figure out how to control our new engine. “But you LS-swapped a car that already had an LS engine,” you say, “which isn’t even technically a swap.”

Bringing Our LS3-Powered C5 Corvette to Life | Project C5 Corvette Z06

Yes, we hear you. Swapping one LS for another might seem seamless from a physical fitment perspective, but various generations of LS engines have some key differences that complicate the matter. For example, our original LS6 powerplant, which is considered the Gen III evolution of the Small-Block Chevy engine, came fitted with a 24-tooth reluctor wheel attached to the crank. This reluctor wheel sends positional data to the ECU for timing purposes. 

Our replacement engine, the Gen IV LS3, uses a 58-tooth wheel. The LS3 also has some repositioned sensors and connectors. Plus, it uses a drive-by-wire throttle body that hinges in the opposite direction.

Now, you absolutely can run a more modern LS3 off the factory C5 Corvette Z06 ECU if you want to. Lingenfelter Performance makes a magic box that converts the reluctor wheel signal to a usable format, and adapters and extensions are available to get the stock harness to interface properly. The throttle body issue can be overcome by using one from an LS2-powered GTO, although those are becoming increasingly harder to find.

If we were building this car for daily driver use, retaining the factory ECU might be a solid option. We’d end up with no conflicts between the engine control and body control functions of the factory ECU, and we’d have a fully functional factory gauge cluster still in place. 

While upgrading our Corvette to LS3 power, we also moved to a fully programmable ECU from Holley. We started with the Terminator X Max before switching to the more weatherproof Dominator. Both use the same harness connections. 

But we’d also need to live by the restrictions of the factory ECU regarding performance and tuning. Yes, the factory ECU tune can be overwritten, but the process can involve a clunky interface. Rewrites can also take a while to upload to the ECU and limit options regarding power adders, too. 

Since our Corvette is a track car, moving to a dedicated ECU was an easy decision. We ordered up a Holley Terminator X Max ECU, which combines a budget-friendly price–less than $1400–with plug-and-play simplicity thanks to Holley’s LS3-specific wiring harness. 

The ECU also features a 3.5-inch handheld touchscreen that allows direct access to many common tuning functions without the need to connect a laptop. The Holley harness doesn’t interface with the older C5 throttle, however, so we had to add a drive-by-wire throttle pedal from a late-model GM SUV. That was the only tricky part. 

The harness was truly plug-and-play, with the Holley replacing the stock ECU–which we left in place to control some body functions like lighting, power windows, central locking, the fuel gauge and a few other accessories. The two harnesses merge at the radiator fans, however; the stock ECU controls the fans, but the Holley needs to know when they’re operating. 

Getting the Corvette running on the Holley ECU wasn’t much of a challenge. It comes programmed with startup maps for many common engine choices, although we used a map already developed by Redline Tuning Services, our tuner on this project. The engine fired after only a few cranks, with only minimal changes needed once on the dyno. 

The downside of an aftermarket ECU like our Holley Terminator is the loss of functioning gauges; those receive data from the stock ECU, which, in our case, was no longer listening to the engine. 

This downside has an upside, however: We could now connect the Holley ECU to one of the company’s display units for full and easy monitoring. We used the 6.86-inch Pro Dash, which runs a little more than a thousand dollars. It perfectly fit in the center console, right in the space vacated by our stereo. Just a slight modification was needed to the single-DIN bezel that had been wrapped around our aftermarket head unit. The result: a Holley Dash that looks almost factory and fits very cleanly.

And that dash is more than simply a dash. The interface is fully customizable, right from the touch-sensitive dash panel itself. This allowed us to set up custom gauge configurations, which came in handy during the break-in of our new engine. Now we can have separate gauge setups for autocross, track time and testing, each based on the parameters we most want to monitor at that moment. 

We eventually upgraded to Holley’s Dominator ECU–depending on options, about $2400. This one features even more inputs and capabilities, and it’s seriously weatherproof–a huge plus for us since we mounted the ECU inside the driver-side fender. The fully sealed and potted Dominator has moisture-proof connectors, and we also sealed off the unused connectors with blank plugs filled with blanking pins and silicone. 

We mounted our Dominator ECU behind the driver-side fender, so we plugged the unused ports with silicone-filled blanks for additional weatherproofing. Our display features just the important readouts–like customized out-of-range warning lights–plus a switch for the cooling fans. We found Holley’s ECU menus intuitive and easy to tweak.

In use, both Holley ECUs really opened up our options for changing engine parameters while also dramatically cutting down on the time needed to do so. ECU rewrites take place in seconds, and the interface is one of the more intuitive ones we’ve used. 

We also love the variety of conditional trigger options built right into many of the control functions. In addition to easily building custom gauges, we can add custom switches to control various functions. 

For example, we wanted to add a manual fan override switch to the Holley Pro Dash. We were able to tell the Holley ECU when to turn the fans on and off using simple, predefined conditional terms like “or,” “if,” and “and,” along with several other common scenario definitions. This allowed us to string together a trigger system that turns on the fans once the coolant temperature reaches a certain range.

We could also program a digital switch on the display itself to operate the fans only if the engine is running or if engine temps cross a certain threshold. Those commands were all available through well-designed dropdown menus.

One of our favorite functions of the Holley ECU, though, involves the throttle response curves. Honestly, it’s one of the best arguments for moving to a drive-by-wire setup. How pedal position corresponds to throttle opening is a key element of driver interface, and while that function won’t gain us any more power, it will absolutely affect the way the car is driven. 

We now have specific throttle curves for both autocross and track use; the autocross curve is a bit less aggressive, since too much throttle too soon in a lower gear could seriously upset chassis balance with all that torque on tap. Switching back and forth–or even custom-tweaking the setting for either–takes just a few seconds. 

Did the aftermarket ECU help us make more power? That’s hard to answer, since a base tune for our setup doesn’t really exist. However, our current dyno sheets back up the ones that came from our engine builder. 

So, the big advantage of a standalone in our situation? Having the ability to access every engine function easily and quickly with just a few keystrokes. We can now make tuning and setup changes between sessions or even between autocross runs, all without ever leaving the driver’s seat.

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Comments
Hungary Bill (Forum Supporter)
Hungary Bill (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
10/22/21 7:12 a.m.

It might just be me, but I'm getting the "oops, we're lost" page

BA5
BA5 GRM+ Memberand Reader
10/22/21 8:44 a.m.

This article came at a good time.  I'm looking into the what/why/how for the ECU for my project.

Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter)
Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter) SuperDork
10/22/21 4:43 p.m.

Been remote tuning a car in the UK and another in Alaska this week. Both from the comfort of my lab in Pa. 

Junghole
Junghole SuperDork
10/22/21 11:51 p.m.

Or do like me:  step 1) buy aftermarket ECU. 
 

Step 2) ask GRM for help  

step3) sell Ecu to a cringey kid on Facebook. 

Cactus
Cactus HalfDork
10/23/21 12:04 p.m.

In reply to Junghole :

Or what I did 1) buy a megasquirt for a turbo project

2) lose interest

3) most recent 5 vehicle purchases are all diesel or carbureted

Keith Tanner
Keith Tanner GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
10/23/21 1:33 p.m.

Did I miss the elephant in the room? Any car newer than a quarter century runs OBD-II. No aftermarket ECU supports it. This can limit your ability to register the car and your resale market. It may also mean that your supplier may not be around to support you in the future if they are run out of business for selling emissions bypass parts. 
 

Buying an ECU from a supplier that has deep experience in your specific application is far better than relying on forums. Forums are populated by hundreds of people with experience on one car. A specialist like AIM has experience with hundreds of examples. It makes a massive difference in the quality of the base map, especially since most individuals just accept driveability problems because it's hard. Think about all the test drive reports you've seen of a car with an aftermarket ecu where it's acknowledged that the tune "isn't finished". 

Aftermarket ECUs definitely have their place. I have them on a couple of my cars. I would much rather work with an ECU than a carb because I can ask it questions :) But it's a bigger step than a lot of people make it out to be. 

MrFancypants
MrFancypants Reader
10/23/21 1:45 p.m.
Keith Tanner said:

I would much rather work with an ECU than a carb because I can ask it questions :) But it's a bigger step than a lot of people make it out to be. 

That's funny. Reminds of of every conversation I've had with older enthusiasts who look at my car and say it's too complicated to deal with when something breaks, then I show them the scan tool tied to my phone that tells me precisely what's wrong with the car when I have a problem. Every time my car has failed me I've been able to diagnose the problem perfectly on the first try, and I'm a complete amateur.

 

 

Run_Away
Run_Away GRM+ Memberand Dork
10/23/21 1:46 p.m.

In reply to BA5 :

I vote FuelTech for your Lude!

BA5
BA5 GRM+ Memberand Reader
10/23/21 8:14 p.m.
Run_Away said:

In reply to BA5 :

I vote FuelTech for your Lude!

Might be a little rich for my build. I'm looking at MS.

Plus they're the only one I've looked at so far that even suggest they support the Honda J series crank trigger, which is apparently a kind of oddball setup.

Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter)
Paul_VR6 (Forum Supporter) SuperDork
10/24/21 6:33 a.m.

FT is workable for guys that hit the gas, then pull the chute. It annoys me for much else. 
 

The j trigger is supported by a few but def not common. We have done two on ms3 pro so far one na and one boosted. 

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