Automakers Are Locking the Aftermarket Out of ECUs

tuned s650 mustang illustration

ILLUSTRATION BY BEN SUMMERELLE-YOUDE/FOX SYNDICATION

Last month, S650 Mustang chief engineer Ed Krenz confirmed to Ford Authority that the upcoming pony car will be “much more difficult” to tune than the outgoing S550 model. This comes as a result of the increased cybersecurity measures tacked onto Ford’s new Fully Networked Vehicle (FNV) architecture, which underpins the seventh-generation Mustang. R&T sat down with tuning industry leaders ProCharger and HP Tuners during the 2022 SEMA Show to discuss what this change means for Mustang customers, as well as the aftermarket as a whole.

As our vehicles start to integrate more complex systems such as Advanced Driver Assist Systems and over-the-air updates, automakers are growing weary of what potential bad actors could gain access to by way of hacking. Whether those hacks come in an attempt to retrieve personal customer data, or to take control of certain aspects of these integrated vehicles, automakers want to leave no part of that equation unchecked.

“I think there are very specific reasons why the OEMs are taking encryption more seriously,” HP Tuners director of marketing Eddie Xu told R&T. “There’s personal identifiable data on vehicles, there’s more considerations now than just engine control modules controlling the engine. It’s everything involved.”

2024 ford mustang gt

Andy Hedrick

In order to prevent this from becoming a potential safety or legal issue, companies like Ford have moved to heavily encrypt their vehicle’s software. Krenz specifically noted that the new FNV architecture can detect when someone attempts to modify any of the vehicle’s coding, and that it can respond by shutting down an individual vehicle system or the vehicle entirely if that’s what is required. That sort of total lockout presents an interesting challenge for tuners who rely on access to things like engine and transmission control modules to create their products.

This acknowledgment from a Ford executive is not the first time that an automaker has moved to restrict people from tuning a popular enthusiast product. Nissan initially claimed that the R35 GT-R featured an encrypted ECU that would be uncrackable by the aftermarket, which Cobb Tuning managed to bypass back in 2008. The car has since become one of the crown jewels of the aftermarket industry. Dodge also made headlines earlier this month when CEO Tim Kuniskis told reporters that the automaker would be taking a similar approach to tuning in the EV era. More specifically, Dodge intends to lock down the ECUs of its upcoming electric muscle car offerings, although it will offer performance upgrades via its own over-the-air network.

2024 ford mustang gt

Andy Hedrick

“We don’t want to lock the cars and say you can’t modify them,” Dodge CEO Kuniskis told Carscoops. “We just want to lock them and say modify them through us so that we know it’s done right.”

Most notably, General Motors has done the same thing as of late with the C8 Corvette, which is underpinned by the company’s own Global B electronics architecture. Corvette chief engineer Tadge Juechter has even gone on record to state that GM intended to make the car as hack-proof as possible regardless of aftermarket concerns.

“The aftermarket crew is very talented and resourceful,” said Juechter in an interview with Muscle Cars and Trucks. “They have been for years. So our business model doesn’t really cater to the aftermarket, we have to do all the things internally between Corvette just like any other General Motors product. Our desire is to make the car as hack-proof as possible to protect our customers.”

While tuners from across the country have started to roll out various forced-induction packages for the mid-engined sports car, the majority of these kits rely on piggyback engine controllers and additional computers to trick the factory ECU. That isn’t the case for ProCharger, who has managed to break through GM’s firewall after two full years of development and engineering work. The company now offers a tuned factory PCM blower kit for the hardtop Stingray, while a convertible offering with adjusted packaging is in the works.

procharger c8 corvette blower package

ProCharger

Erik Radzins, the director of communications and calibrations for ProCharger’s parent company Accessible Technologies, told R&T that the team had also initially attempted to utilize piggyback boxes for their C8 package, but ultimately didn’t feel like they could confidently lean on the cars without full ECU access. A similar situation could be in store for the Mustang should its encryption levels be similar. Radzins also noted that the data pulled from the LT2 V-8’s ECU wasn’t that different from the data provided by the C7 Corvette’s LT1 V-8 engine. This made the process of making power on a dyno relatively straightforward once the team was able to start fiddling. Considering the S650 Mustang will adopt an updated version of the 5.0-liter Coyote V-8, it’s possible tuners of that platform will be in store for a similar outcome. Breaking through GM’s ECU firewall proved to be only the first step of the process for ProCharger, with a lot of time ultimately being spent on getting various modules to speak to each other within the stricter electronics architecture.

“What we thought was going to be easy on the ECU side turned into months and months and months of dialing in the driver experience,” said Radzins. “Getting the TCU and the ECU to talk to each other to make sure the shifts were on time and perfect. To make sure the car shifts with meaning, making sure it wasn’t sloppy and all of that. It does now have a completely custom operating system in it. It runs a three bar MAP so that the ECU can understand boost. The ECU can also actually see the inlet air temperature as well as the charge temperature, so we know the efficiency of the intercooler at all times. There’s also a fan control to handle intercooler cooling, which wasn’t something that we could do before because we had no control over it.”

2024 ford mustang gt

Andy Hedrick

Radzins does believe that the aftermarket will inevitably make its way past Ford’s attempts to limit the Mustang, just as it has with the C8. That said, the C8 proved that these encryption methods can result in longer lag times as far as kit availability is concerned, as well as an increase in development costs for the tuning companies themselves. That investment is going to have to be made back through a shift in the aftermarket’s pricing model.

“I just will say that things become more and more complex,” said Xu. “As time has gone on with systems and vehicles becoming more complex, the result of what companies like us have to do in order to access them is more complex, and we see that reflected in engineering time, development time, and ultimately cost.”

Xu further noted that some customers have been surprised to see increasing prices across the industry, but sympathizes with the fact that they might not be clued into the increasing complexity involved for tuning companies. Xu also shares Radzins belief that the demand for aftermarket products will entice companies to find ways around the cybersecurity measures intended for platforms like the Mustang.

2024 ford mustang gt

Andy Hedrick

“Eventually the aftermarket will want to do things,” said Xu. “The customer demand is there and they want to take these cars and make them faster or change them in whatever ways to customize them to their usages. We’ll find solutions, different companies with different standards for the types of solutions they will provide too. We pride ourselves in having the entire full solution, where you can do what you need to do. There’s no limited band-aids or things like that. We try to avoid those things.”

One of the virtues of the Mustang platform has always been the amount of performance and potential for improvement it offers for the money. Tuners obviously have financial concerns related to the platform being locked down, but most are willing to work with automakers to find some sort of space to operate within.

“My first car was a Mustang and I just love them,” said Radzins. “I think they’re a great car. I was a little sad when Ford said they’re going to lock it down because I always felt like one of the reasons so many people bought Mustangs, even if they aren’t the ones to modify it, maybe their dad or their buddies would . The whole point of the Mustang was that it is a car that you could afford to buy and then make it exactly how you want. I get the point of doing it for security purposes, but I feel like maybe there’s a way to lock down body control modules, ABS modules and stuff like that without doing that on the engine side. Maybe they could come out with packages at the dealer level where a guy could come in and buy the unlocking service.”

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Ford

Ford already offers a number of upgrade packages available at its dealers through the Ford Performance catalog. These offerings even include supercharger packages and flash tunes for the various S550 Mustang models. This practice surely won’t stop with the introduction of the S650 platform. The Ford team already has relationships with companies like Roush, Shelby American and RTR, and it seems clear that the automaker intends to allow those partners access to their encrypted ECUs. Whether or not an automaker is willing to leave profits on the table by opening its software up to outside tuners presents a whole different challenge to overcome.

“We will collaborate a lot,” Jamoul told Ford Authority. “This is a new way of doing business now, the old way doesn’t work anymore. So you’ve gotta collaborate and keep it flexible and open.”

While that collaborative effort works well for companies that have long-standing relationships with OEMs, smaller tuning companies are being cut out of the equation even if they’ve previously operated in a legal fashion.

rtr mustang rear valance

RTR Vehicles on Facebook

“Companies like us aren’t out to hurt anybody,” said Radzins. “We aren’t trying to steal secrets or anything like that. We do our due diligence to make sure that everything we do is safe, compliant with emissions, and legal. Not all of us are out here to be bad guys. I can understand the pressure from the EPA or whoever, but it would be cool to have a bridge where the folks that are willing to make investments and check all of the boxes are able to highlight what these cars can do when they are played with the correct way.”

The undercurrent here is that both OEMs and the aftermarket know that tuning will continue to take place, but the question of how that happens is unresolved. Who is in and who is out, who survives the transition and who does not?

2024 ford mustang

Ford

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