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Corner Wrench: When engine mods and computer updates don't cooperate

Chip tuning is popular, but may not play well with dealer software updates

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When computer-controlled fuel-injected engines became the norm, a lot of tuners and speed enthusiasts thought it would bring the end of engine modifications to improve performance and power. Fortunately, those naysayers never counted on the ingenuity of gearheads and their close cousins, IT specialists. Today there are a slew of software updates and plug-n-play performance chips available to put more punch in a wide variety of engines for many popular enthusiast vehicles and light trucks.

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But not everyone is looking for a few honest extra horsepower. Some are driven to bypass and eliminate some critical emissions’ controls. We here at don’t condone these types of emissions bypass mods, and even the makers of such software and components provide clear warnings that they’re not intended for on-road use. One common type of such modifications is the elimination of exhaust gas recirculation coolers on modern light-truck diesel engines. These are extremely complicated systems with some astronomical repair bills and less-than-stellar reliability as the engine ages. Ram, for example, issued a recall for some of its 3.0L diesels for such issues which required replacement of the cooler itself.

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When factory engine controllers are reprogrammed to accommodate mods, (instead of a plug-n-play chip) they disrupt the default settings. If a dealership service department installs any software updates the results are usually an engine that either won’t start or on that runs extremely poorly. Some safety recalls and customer satisfaction campaigns may involve on-board software changes. Some are done through technical service bulletins from automakers. Some are done at no charge to the customer and some involve a fee if the vehicle is beyond its warranty.

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If your ride has any software mods (that you want to keep) on any on-board computers and you have to take it in to a dealership for any reason, make sure you let the counter staff know not to have their techs complete any software updates. Even if the update is free, they shouldn’t be performing any tasks on your vehicle without your express authorization. If the update is part of a safety issue, you should get the software installed and make arrangements to have your performance mod redone.