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Kate on Cars October 2012 - Software Updates

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Kate on Cars October 2012
Software Updates - Tune-up for the New Millenium


by Kate Jonasse

The word “tune-up” as it applies to modern cars is kind of a misnomer. In the old days, there were actually components on cars that you could adjust and “tune.” There were condensers and points to adjust, ignition timing, valve clearance, and carburetors to adjust as well. Today, ignition timing is controlled by the engine control module (there is still a base-timing setting on some newer cars), valve clearance is automatically taken up via hydraulic lifters, and carburetors are a thing of the past. Typically what most consumers call a “tune-up” is pretty much replacing some worn out spark plugs, cap and rotor (if equipped), filters and fluids. Some vehicles still have a valve adjustment, but they are getting rarer and rarer. The tune-up for the new millennium involves updating your car’s computers.

The computers on your car are very much like the computers in your home or office Have you seen that little window that pops up and tells you there’s an update that needs to be done? Usually that update box comes up on my computer at least once a week, sometimes more. You can click on the button and the computer will automatically update itself. Well, your car needs updates too, except there is no little pop-up box in your instrument cluster to tell you this, and no little button to push to make it happen automatically. A certified shop with an expensive tool needs to do it for you.

Your car can have literally have hundreds of computers, also known as control modules. The most important ones are the powertrain control module, transmission control module, and ABS/traction control module. The powertrain control module controls how the engine runs – it listens to what sensors tell it, then it looks at it's internal programming map, and decides which course of action to take based on what the sensors tell it. The PCM can adjust the quantity of fuel injected into the engine, the amount of opening of the throttle plate, and ignition or spark timing and duration. The transmission control module is in charge of transmission operations like shift points and shift feel. The ABS/traction module is in charge of anti-lock braking operation and traction control.

There can be control modules in the doors, instrument cluster, center console, heater controls, behind the dash, in the trunk, in the roof, in the pillars, in the engine compartment, in the fenders, or almost anywhere else you can think of. They can control almost any function on the car, like window and sunroof operation, the operation of interior and exterior lighting, door lock and trunk operation, and so much more.

Not all cars have so many computers, but all modern cars have at absolute bare minimum a PCM. This PCM was programmed with software from the factory. Very often, problems with the software that the manufacturer did not anticipate arise months or years after the production of a vehicle. The manufacturer then creates new software for the vehicle's computers and then releases it for a price.

An independent shop with the proper tool and access to the internet can tell you if your vehicle's computer has an update available (most do) and then perform that update. My customers have been thrilled with the results. Often these updates can solve weird driveability complaints that they thought they just had to live with. Computer updates can alter engine running, ease in which the check engine light comes on, transmission shift points, fuel economy – you name it. Not that all reprogramming results in instantly obvious improvement in performance. But this often neglected “tune-up” should absolutely be done whenever an update is available.

Remember – just as your home or office computer needs regular updates, it is important to the proper operation of your vehicle to have your repair shop update your vehicle's computer. Adding computer updating to your vehicle's regular maintenance schedule can result in a better running vehicle and better fuel economy. Ask your friendly repair shop if they can update you car's computers.