There are many pitfalls in the world of vehicle
modification – one of the least recognised is the headache caused by password
protection of programmable ECUs. You see, even though you’ve shelled out a
substantial amount of cash for a programmable management system and a
professional tune, you can still run into massive problems. Like not being able
to re-tune your car.
So what is this password protection bizo and what
to engine management manufacturers and tuners have to say about it?
Haltech is a respected Australian designed and
manufacturer of programmable ECUs. We spoke with Danny Nowlan, Front-end
Software Engineering Manager, regarding the company’s standpoint on password
“All of our programmable systems, the
E8/E11 and E6X, have a password protection feature that can be used if the tuner
decides to. This locks you out of seeing any of the maps.
“If you buy a car with a password protected system
or you want to take the car to another tuner, you really need the password to
begin tuning from the existing maps. If you can’t get the password, you can get
your new workshop to wipe the ECU – but you will lose the existing maps. In most
instances, we offer a set of base maps that can help to get starting again.
“Our Haltech interceptor also has a password
protection feature that can be reset if necessary. This loses any existing maps
and all interception values are returned to zero so the car will run off the
factory ECU. However, the interceptor settings (such as load input) remain the
MoTeC is the manufacturer of amongst the most
recognised programmable management systems in the world. Jamie Augustine is an
engineer at MoTeC’s Operations Department.
“All of the MoTeC systems
[M4, M48, M400, M600 and
M800) have a password access feature that can be used if the tuner wants,” Mr
“ The ECU must to be locked in semi-OEM
applications, such as Clubmans and Roaring ‘40s vehicles, where the maps are
tuned to meet emission standards. There are also instances where, for example, a
workshop might spend a week tuning a customer’s WRX. Rather than charge for dyno
time and labour, the tuner might charge less and give the customer access and
use of the map – but not ownership of the map. But wherever this is the case,
the customer needs to be told up-front.
“If you buy a car with a password protected ECU,
your first step should be to contact the previous owner to see if they have the
code. Failing that, contact the original workshop and ask if they’ll provide you
with the code.
“It’s important to remember that the person who
locked the map owns the tune – not the whole ECU.
“In instances where there’s a problem, MoTeC will
usually talk to the original owner, the tuner and discuss why the ECU was
password protected. The tuner or seller of the ECU can be traced with the unit’s
serial number. At the same time, we’ll check the serial number to make sure the
person isn’t trying to unlock a stolen ECU – this has happened a few times.”
Autronic is another top-line programmable
management system that’s based in Australia. We spoke with the company’s
International Distribution Manager, Ray Hall.
“I’m against the whole idea of password protection
– it just makes people cranky,” Mr Hall said.
“In top Group A motorsport I can see where it
might be of some use but not in the case of a street car. All of our systems
[the SMC, SM2 and SM4]
have a password protection facility because a lot of
tuners still want it. The password can be anything you like – a mix of
alpha-numeric code or one or the other.
“If you don’t have the password you can’t access
any of our system – not even the real-time data.
“If there’s no way you can get the password from
the original tuner, there’s the option of removing the program and starting
again with a base map. A dealer should be able to do that. I think on one
occasion Richard Aubert
[the head of Autronic]
has got into the program and
unlocked the maps but this was in an exceptional case.”
“I think most cases where the tuner wants to
protect their intellectual property are just rubbish – it’s the cause of a lot
of hassle. I’ve seen some tuners password protect the program after going in for
a tweak and a quick power run – that’s not on.”
Nizpro is one of Australia’s top tuning workshops
with experience in everything from old FJ20 Nissan fours to twin-turbo quad-cam
V8s built for off-shore powerboat racing. Simon Gischus is the owner and head
tuner. A previous exponent of password protection, he has now discarded the
“I used to password protect all of my programs but
not any more. The first reason I protected the program was to stop people going
to the guy at the pub, getting him to reprogram it and smashing the engine. The
second reason was to try and keep information to ourselves – you know, we’ve got
a lot of money tied up in our chassis dyno and engine dyno.
“I don’t use a password anymore because I was
having people ring me five years down the track – the car is at a workshop and
they want to change the program for some unknown reason. Then it was a hassle
because we used only three different passwords and we didn’t want to give them
out – it meant having to send us the ECU so we could unlock it. In addition to
that, I was finding that people were putting pressure on MoTeC to get around the
password – and I’m pretty sure that was done on a couple of occasions.”
Gold Coast based ChipTorque is one of Australia’s
longest established and recognised tuning specialists. Lachlan Riddel suggests
the topic is a minefield.
“At the moment I guess we’ve got a fairly rubbery
policy but we tend to lock any system that isn’t a MicroTech – we might spend 3
hours tuning a MicroTech and 10 hours tuning an Autronic. We tend to protect our
intellectual property on big tuning projects, like if we spend 20 – 40 hours
tuning a MoTeC from scratch for a 2004 STi.
“If someone sells the car or moves interstate, we
will give the password to other companies within the ChipTorque group – in
Sydney, for example, we’d give the password to Silverwater Automotive Services.
In any case, I often travel interstate to tune cars so I can do it the next time
I’m in the vicinity. But, generally, if the car is sold and another tuner wants
to get in, we’ll take the program out. We have a statement on our invoices
regarding password protection.
“But, if there are ever any problems
where you can’t access the program, I suggest talking to the original tuner in a
civilizer manner and explaining the circumstances. That’s the logical way to
David Keen from Adelaide’s Turbo Tune
is another operator with extensive experience in the industry.
“I think it’s generally a good idea to protect the
programs. In terms of road cars, the owners are generally under 30 years old and
anyone of that age can use a computer – but they have no idea about tuning. They
can quickly get into a lot of strife if they get into the program and make
changes. In motorsport circles, the owners are generally a bit more professional
and they only ever bring the car back to our workshop when a change is needed.
They don’t need to be kept out.
“But, having said that, we tend not to
password protect the ECUs that we program. I guess this is a little bit of
laziness but, really, it’s to avoid the problems it can cause.”
Clearly, tuners have differing opinions
of whether to password protect or not.
To avoid a situation where the password
won’t be handed out and the engine needs to be retuned from scratch, we
recommend establishing the workshop’s standpoint on the subject before any
tuning is performed. An up-front written and signed agreement is a very good
However, in instances where you’ve
bought a car with a programmable ECU and you don’t have the password, your first
step should be to contact the original tuner, explain your situation and
politely ask for the password or whether they will unlock the program for you.
One workshop we spoke to even suggested visiting the original tuner with a
carton of beer as an offering!