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Fork in the road for tuning

What Cobb’s Emissions Lockout Means for “Tuning.”

Possible knock-on effect from “No Tamper” US tuning rules


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21 Jun 2022

ON A technicality, new laws coming into effect in Australia on July 1 may delay the implementation of so-called “locked” Electronic Control Units (ECUs), but changes to US regulations will be difficult to bypass and will likely have a knock-on effect.


The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) pushed for the implementation of information-sharing legislation that obligate manufacturers and dealers to share vehicle information freely within the motor industry. However, a clampdown is underway in the US on tuneable ECUs by forcing software providers to withdraw online information associated with performance tuning. 


Aftermarket engine modifications, where vehicles’ powerplants are “enhanced” by an engineer/tuner to deliver more performance, is big business in Australia, the ‘States and indeed, around the world. A dollar figure on the aftermarket/performance industry’s worth here is difficult to ascertain – suffice to say, it could easily run to hundreds of millions of dollars, possibly billions.


“Tuning” can involve everything from a less restrictive air filter through to a sporty exhaust, right up to a complete engine build with forced induction, modified internal components and a new ECU.


Australian States and Territories have enforceable limits on what modifications can be carried out on a road-registered vehicle. However, their enforcement is, at times, lax often relying on police action through defecting vehicles. An engineer’s compliance certificate is required to get a defected or modified vehicle back on the road.


At this point, minimal enforcement is applied to aftermarket-vehicle ECU calibration in Australia. 


Given that Australia tends to follow the US in relation to vehicle design and emissions laws, rule changes to ECU calibration in that country may seriously limit performance modifications here.


As reported in US-based website Road and Track in August last year, the California Bureau of Automotive Repair (BAR) began enforcing a new policy focused on ECU tuning.


 “Under these new rules, any vehicle with an ECU that's not approved by the California Air Resources Board (CARB) will fail the state’s biennial smog check,” the publication reported.


“The smog tests include visual inspection of emissions equipment and a tailpipe test. They impact all petrol-powered passenger vehicles from 1976 onwards, and every diesel-powered passenger vehicle from 1998 or newer. Testing is not required on vehicles that are less than eight years old.”


The Road & Track report said: “Onboard Diagnostic II (OBDII)-equipped cars and trucks from 1996 or newer will be checked to make sure they're running factory software or a CARB-approved ECU tune. If a car is running software that does not fall into these categories, it will fail the smog check and can't be registered or renewed until the computer equipment is brought into compliance.”


“Testing for compliance involves plugging into the car's ECU and checking the code to determine if anything is out of place.”


Every aftermarket computer device in the US, whether standalone ECU or inline (piggyback) tuner, is required to carry an Executive Order (EO) number that indicates it's been approved by CARB.


Road & Track reports that car enthusiasts in California and elsewhere in the US weren’t happy about the new limitations and wondered how they might affect tuned and modified vehicles.


It didn’t take long to find out. In April this year, Cobb Tuning, one of the largest US suppliers of tuning software and components for enthusiasts, restricted access to specific engine tables and emissions-related systems via its Accesstuner software. 


Cobb Tuning customers no longer have the ability to modify anything related to a vehicle’s “Emissions-Related Elements of Design” through the brand’s Accesstuner software.


According to Road & Track, this means that tuners can no longer modify or remove components such as O2 (oxygen) sensors, exhaust gas temperature sensors, EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) systems, or diagnostic trouble codes.


The change also restricts the ability to modify the minimum and maximum values in an ECU’s diagnostic OBD test tables.


Road & Track article goes on to say: “Basically any changes that the EPA could regard as a ‘delete tune’ have been hidden from all end users. Cobb has confirmed that they will not be offering support to any customer whose tune falls outside of the legal parameters.”


The company has attracted heavy criticism in the US for its decision, which also pertains to flex-fuel tuning programs, but were under legislative pressures to comply.


The Environmental Protection Agency in the US has become more active in pursuing the automotive aftermarket of late.


Until recently, enforcement of the Clean Air Act (legislated in the ‘70s) hadn’t really hit the automotive aftermarket in the US. However, more legal actions are now being taken against aftermarket companies that are in violation of the law.


From an Australian perspective, we are in a different position as already mentioned… From July 1, access to files such as online tuning tables and suchlike is guaranteed by the ACCC… to motor traders with an ABN. 


Still, in-service modifications would be allowed, provided they fall within ADR (Australian Design Regulation) limits.

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