Would you believe flash reprogrammable PCMs have been in vehicles for more than a decade? The first such application was the 1990 Geo Storm. Why a humdrum car like the Storm would be the first to receive a flash reprogrammable computer system is unknown. You’d think GM would have chosen a more high profile vehicle like a Cadillac or Corvette to usher in the new technology. But they didn’t. The choice probably had more to do with production scheduling and new model introductions than profile or image. GM knew OBD II was coming and that it would require a new generation of PCMs that were faster, more capable and able to be programmed electronically.
Up to this point, Program Read Only Memory (PROM) chips held all of the PCM’s vital calibration information and operating instructions. GM pioneered the replaceable PROM chip as a way of programming a limited number of basic PCMs to fit a wide range of GM makes and models. A replaceable PROM chip also meant the PCM could be "retuned" if necessary to correct certain kinds of emissions or driveability problems. It also meant that if a bug was later discovered in the original factory programming, it could be corrected in the field by simply replacing the original PROM with an updated corrected PROM (a tactic GM has successfully used over the years to fix many factory flaws). Performance enthusiasts also liked replaceable PROMs because the chip could be replaced with one that provided more spark advance, fuel enrichment, a higher rev limit, etc., to squeeze more power out of the engine.
But replaceable PROMS had a serious drawback: there were too many of them! Every model year and every running change meant another PROM had to be created. Every field fix or recall for an emissions or driveability problem created more part numbers to keep track of. We’re talking thousands of different PROMS. The General Motors PROM Identification manual that OTC used to provide with their Monitor scan tool and Pathfinder software contained more than 362 pages of GM PROM numbers!
Enter the flash reprogrammable EEPROM (Electronically Erasable Program Read Only Memory) chip. PCMs built with EEPROM chips can be reprogrammed in a matter of minutes without having to remove the PCM or replace a single chip. It’s all done digitally with the proper access codes and input data.
Following the Geo Storm, GM began phasing in PCMs with flash reprogrammable chips in a variety of cars and trucks. By 1995, most GM models had the flash reprogrammable PCMs. Ford and Chrysler were also doing the same thing as OBD II arrived on all cars and light trucks in model year 1996. Today, almost all PCMs have reprogramming capabilities so changes and upgrades can be made if needed. That’s over 100 million vehicles that have been built since 1996.
As we said earlier, PCMs may need to be reprogrammed for several reasons. One is to fix factory bugs. Every time Bill Gates rushes yet another version of Windows to market to perpetuate the Microsoft revenue stream, it always turns out to have bugs and security holes that were somehow missed but must be fixed by downloading and installing the latest Windows "service pack." It’s a never-ending cycle of upgrades and patches. Fortunately, it isn’t that bad yet with automotive PCMs, but it has become a crutch for automakers who rush products to market that aren’t quite ready. This philosophy of "build it now and fix it later" creates a lot of unnecessary recalls, but at least it gives technicians a way to fix factory mistakes without having to replace any parts.
A reflash may also be required if the factory settings for the OBD II self-diagnostics turn out to be overly sensitive – especially after a few years of operation. The same goes for driveability. What works fine in a brand new car many not work so great after 50,000 or 100,000 miles of real-world driving. Changing the fuel enrichment curve, spark timing or some emissions control function slightly may be necessary to eliminate a hesitation, spark knock or other condition that develops over time.
For example, on certain GM vehicles the Check Engine light comes on and sets a code P1406 that indicates a fault in the position of the exhaust gas recirculation (EGR) valve. Cleaning or replacing the EGR valve and clearing the code does not fix the vehicle because the code usually returns. The real problem is the OBD II programming in the PCM. When the PCM commands the EGR valve to open to check its operation, it isn’t allowing enough time for the valve to respond. A brand new valve takes only about 50 milliseconds to open but an older valve may take up to 350 milliseconds or longer – which isn’t long enough to cause a real NOx emissions failure but is long enough to trip a fault code. The fix in this instance is to reflash the PCM with new instructions that allow more time for the EGR valve to respond.
Another example are rich codes that may appear on some late-model GM vehicles. The problem here is that the original OBD II self-diagnostic programming doesn’t allow enough leeway for changes in intake vacuum that occur as the engine ages. After 60,000 miles, intake vacuum isn’t as high as in a new engine, which can create a rich fuel condition. The cure is to flash reprogram the PCM to compensate for the drop in vacuum.
When vehicle manufacturers calibrate the onboard diagnostics to meet federal emissions standards, they have to draw the line somewhere as to what operating conditions might cause emissions to exceed federal limits 1.5 times. That’s the threshold where a fault code must be set and the Check Engine light must come on. It doesn’t mean emissions really are over the limit, but it is possible based on laboratory dyno testing and field experience. Depending on the application, the vehicle manufacturer may even set the limit a little lower just to be safe because the last thing any OEM wants is an expensive emissions recall.
Unfortunately, vehicle manufacturers don’t always tell us their diagnostic strategies or even their operating strategies for their computerized engine control systems. Some service manuals include a fair amount of system background information but others provide almost nothing beyond a basic diagnostic flow chart. Maybe the engineers who design this stuff think technicians only need flow charts and assembly instructions to fix vehicles today. But it often takes a much deeper understanding of the system operating logic to figure out what’s setting a particular code – especially when the cause isn’t obvious.
The best advice when confronted with a troublesome code that keeps coming back or seems to set for no apparent reason is to check for any technical service bulletins that may have been published. Chances are it might be a programming issue that requires a reflash to fix.
Something else to keep in mind with respect to all late-model flash reprogrammable PCMs: if you replace the PCM for any reason, the replacement unit must be reflashed before it will start the engine! If the PCM is not programmed, it’s just a dumb box like a PC without an operating system.
Some remanufacturers who supply reconditioned PCMs now flash program PCMs for specific vehicle applications. But to do this, they need three critical pieces of information: the vehicle identification number (VIN), the type of transmission (manual or automatic) and the emissions type (federal certification or California). Your other option is to flash reprogram the PCM yourself.
Not Just Dealers Anymore
Until recently, car dealers were the only ones who had access to the tools and software needed to reflash PCMs. Thanks to the passing of Senate Bill 1146 in September 2000, vehicle manufacturers must now make this technology available to independent repair shops at reasonable cost.
Starting in 2004, flash reprogramming procedures must also conform to SAE J2534 standards that allow the use of aftermarket scan tools or similar pass-through devices.
Reflashing PCMs requires three things: a scan tool or J2534 pass-through device that is flash capable, a Windows 98 or higher PC with a modem and Internet access for downloading the flash software from the vehicle manufacturer’s website, and a subscription to the manufacturer’s database so you can access the software. Other items that are needed include a cable to connect the PC to the scan tool or J2534 pass-through device, and a cable to connect the scan tool or J2534 pass-through device to the OBD II connector on the vehicle.
For GM applications, you need a Tech 2 scan tool or Vetronix Mastertech.
For Ford applications, you need a Ford New Generation Star (NGS) scan tool.
For Chrysler applications, you need a Diagnostic and Reprogramming Tool (DART). Chrysler dealers use the Mopar Diagnostic System (MDS2) and DRB III scan tool.
For import applications, you need whatever factory scan tool the dealer uses, an aftermarket scan tool with reflash capabilities for that vehicle, or a J2534 pass-through device that will work on the vehicle.
Yearly and monthly access fees to OEM databases tend to be very pricey for the average shop, but one-day or short-term access fees are typically available for $20 to $25. The cost can and should be passed along to your customers. After all, it’s their PCM that’s being reflashed so why shouldn’t they pay the OEM software access fee?
The flash procedure usually takes only a few minutes and is similar to installing new software into a computer. The only difference is that you’re downloading the new software through a modem and scan tool into the vehicle’s PCM through the OBD II diagnostic connector.
Did You Know…
Some of the other players you can expect to see in the flash reprogramming arena include Hickok/Waekon, CARDONE Industries, Drew Technologies and SPX/OTC Service Solutions.
GM Flash Updates
On GM vehicles, a list of flash updates that are available can be found on GM’s Vehicle PCM Calibration Information website at http://calid.gm.com.
The actual reprogramming procedure for a typical GM vehicle goes as follows:
- Check the calibration history of the vehicle — Go to the GM web page at http://calid.gm.com and see what latest program is for the vehicle using the vehicle’s VIN number. If the programming has been updated to correct a problem, it will be listed on the website.
- Connect your PC to the Tech 2 scan tool with a RS232 cable pass-through device.
- Start the GM recalibration software program on your PC and enter the vehicle application information (year, make, model, etc.).
- Connect the Tech 2 scan tool to the diagnostic connector on the vehicle (located under the dash near the steering column).
- Switch the Tech 2 scan tool on and wait for the Start screen.
- Validate the vehicle VIN number.
- Choose the operating system, engine, fuel system, speedometer or transmission.
- Select "normal reprogramming" or "VCI" (special modifications).
- Choose the update bulletin/recalibration number from the menu.
- Start the transfer of data. The reprogramming procedure takes about three minutes, and can be done with the computer in or out of the vehicle. The PC screen will display a blue progress bar as the software is uploading to the vehicle.
Note: The GM setup won’t allow the same calibration to be reinstalled over itself. Only an updated calibration can be loaded into the vehicle computer.
For sake of comparison, here’s the flash reprogram procedure a Chrysler dealer would use. This one happens to be for a recall Chrysler issued for 1999 California Dodge Ram Pickups and Vans with 5.9L engine ("Z" engine code in the 8th VIN position), automatic transmission and California emissions control system (code NAE). The OBD II catalyst monitor on these vehicles may not detect a catalyst failure so the PCM programming had to be revised to comply with California’s regulations.
The dealer accesses the latest software through the modem connection in the Mopar Diagnostic System, and feeds it through the DRB II scan tool into the vehicle’s PCM via the OBD II connector. The process begins by turning the ignition key on (engine off) and allowing the scan tool to "auto connect" with the PCM. Once the lines of communication are open, the VIN is displayed on the scan tool. The technician can now press the "OK" button to proceed with the reflash procedure.
The first thing he does is select "Read Part Numbers From Vehicle" and click "Show Updates" on the MDS2. If somebody has already reflashed the PCM, the screen will say "Part number is up to date and does not require any new updates." The software number should be compared to the latest version to verify the numbers match just the same. If the PCM has not yet been updated, the technician clicks OK, selects the new software part number and clicks "Update Controller Software." From that point on, the process is automatic – but there’s a hitch. During the flash reprogramming procedure, the PCM loses communication with other modules on the vehicle that may set a number of "false" trouble codes for the transmission module, ABS module, body control module, etc. This does not indicate a problem and the codes can be erased after the flash reprogramming procedure has been completed. The technician is also supposed to attach a label to the PCM with the reflash part number and date indicating the PCM has been reflashed.
Not Without Risk
So what happens if something goes wrong during a reflash procedure? Anyone who has ever experienced a crash while installing new software on a PC knows it can really screw things up. Chrysler issued a TSB (18-32-98) that deals with how to recover from a flash reprogramming failure.
The bulletin says, "Occasionally a flash update procedure may not complete properly and/or the diagnostic equipment may lock up during the procedure." Common causes of flash errors include poor cable connections between the PC, scan tool and vehicle, loss of power to the diagnostic equipment while the flash procedure is underway, turning off the vehicle ignition switch before the flash procedure is complete, unfamiliarity with the procedure (pushing the wrong buttons), or low vehicle battery voltage.
If the process crashes, recheck all the cable connections to assure good communications and reinitialize the flash procedure. In other words, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. On the Chrysler applications, you may also have to identify which type of controller is on the vehicle (SBEC2, SBEC3, JTEC 96-98, JTEC+ 99, etc.) to get the system to accept the new programming. If you get an error message again, you probably selected the wrong controller type (try again!).
Doing your own flash reprogramming is not without risk. But for some shops it may be a more practical and profitable alternative to sending vehicles back to the dealer every time a PCM needs to be updated or replaced.
The California Air Resources Board (CARB) will conduct a public hearing on January 22 regarding J2534. The existing regulation requires on-board computer reprogramming for 2004 and later model year light-/medium-duty vehicles to be in compliance with the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) J2534. The board will address minor implementation issues that have arisen with the introduction of reprogramming equipment for 2004 model year vehicles. SAE has amended the J2534 protocol by adding further detail and clarification. CARB is proposing that the most recent version of SAE J2534 document be incorporated into the regulation.
Underhood Service will bring you additional coverage on J2534 as it is made available.