Bikes have never been so fantastic but with a few tricks of the trade you can make yours smarter, faster and even more efficient. Welcome to the highly technical world of motorcycle brain surgery… aka mapping.
What annoys you most about your bike? Does it have a stupid 186mph speed limit? Do you reckon it’s softening the power too much in lower gears? And why the feck does it keep resetting the power mode to ‘lame’ every time you park the bugger up?
Yep, modern bikes are great. But they’re also really smart. Too smart sometimes. The ECUs (electric control units) at the heart of many current bikes are clever enough to give us 200bhp, quickshifters, auto-blippers, traction control, ABS, wheelie and launch control – about the only thing they can’t do is wave cheekily at the bus stop queue as you sail past doing a mono.
But this comes at a price. Because, ultimately, the person in charge of all this is the boffin at the factory. Now, sometimes that’s a good thing: several firms like KTM, BMW and Ducati all seem prepared to let you do, essentially, whatever the hell you fancy, and the settings are generally pretty lax – you can turn off ABS and traction control altogether on BMs, for example.
However, some firms are a bit more uptight. They insist on switching ABS and traction control back on whenever you park up, and their bikes often cut power at the top end to limit maximum speed, and also in the lower gears. Think of an Android smartphone versus an Apple iPhone – Steve Jobs is watching from above, and he’s very careful about what he lets you do with his lovely iPhone. The Android world is the Wild West in comparison.
Now – imagine you could hack into your bike’s ECU. Jailbreak it, root it, whatever ‘da kidz’ call it these days – but access all those hidden settings, and tweak them to suit yourself. And while you’re at it, you can also get into the fuel maps, ignition settings and secondary throttle or ride-by-wire throttle valve controls. Then, with full control, you can do what you want with your bike. Sounds like a dream, right? Well now you can. And we’ve been watching just how tuners do it with what’s called ECU editing. You may not have heard of it but it’s revolutionising tuning in several vital ways.
Taking back control
First up though, why do we need to ‘edit’ our ECUs? Well, one big reason is emissions rules. These make the manufacturers jump through a load of hoops to comply with regs on noise and exhaust gas emissions. So engineers will cut the amount of fuel going into the combustion chambers and the timing of both the ignition spark and the fuel injectors to clean up the exhaust. That can reduce power, and (more often) give jerky, harsh power delivery and poor throttle response. There have been some classic cases of late – Yamaha’s MT-09 and Suzuki’s GSX-S1000 in particular have woeful fuelling at part throttle openings.
The problems are seldom at full-throttle, full-power – many bikes give decent performance here. Where problems appear is normally at smaller throttle openings, mid-range power outputs, high-rev/low throttle scenarios. Design engineers run the mix super-lean, even turning off the petrol altogether when you shut the throttle at high revs, or they use radical ignition timings to clean up the exhaust. So, when you open the throttle again, there’s a sudden ‘rush’ of fuel, and you get jerky delivery.
Secondly, over the past few years, engineers have sneakily been whisking away control of our throttles more and more. Ride-by-wire throttles, and (to a lesser extent) secondary throttle valves, are being taken over by the ECU, and what you get at the engine often bears little relationship to what your wrist is doing. Back in the good old days, when you opened the twist grip fully, then the throttle valves in the carbs or the fuel injection bodies opened fully too. That sometimes meant poor fuelling (especially with full race flat-slide carburettors), but it also meant no confusion about what ‘full gas’ meant. Giving the ECU control of the throttle plates lets the computer match the airflow to the power demands better, and if it’s done right, will give optimal power all over. But the factories also use this power for other things – emissions and noise control, and power limits, where the engineers think you shouldn’t get everything the engine can give.
So, many bikes now won’t give you 100 per cent throttle valve opening at all in lower gears, while bikes like the Yamaha Tracer and XSR900 do the same in the top gears, above certain rpm, to give a speed limiter function. These limits seem to be designed as safety measures – and we can see the point of a novice using a ‘low power’ mode to stop wheelies in lower gears. We can also, sort of, see the point of speed limiters on a tall adventure bike which might be unstable at high speeds. But we also see why an experienced owner would want control over both of those things. The best throttle safety device is, arguably, a well-tuned right wrist…
The third reason for ECU editing is probably the easiest to understand. Carry out
any tuning work on your bike, and you’ll be wanting to adjust the fuelling to suit. A full race exhaust, free-flowing air filter, maybe some high-lift cams – they all give more peak power, but they all also need to have different amounts of fuel put into the engine. You could fix this with a Power Commander – and millions of us have over the years, with great results. Those little black boxes sit between the ECU and the fuel injectors and alter the mixture on the fly as you ride along, according to the Power Commander’s internal fuel adjustment map. But now you can cut out the piggyback box, by just changing the fuelling map inside the stock ECU, so the injector signals are correct from the start.
Finally, there are the neat little mods which only ECU editing can change. Fitted a race exhaust and want to dump the exhaust servo valve? One click can delete that whole function in the ECU, getting rid of warning lights instantly. Ditto for removing a standard oxygen sensor circuit. Want your radiator fan to come on a little sooner, so your engine
doesn’t get so hot in traffic? The ECU editor can drop the fan switch-on temperature by five or ten degrees, keeping your legs cooler in summer. You can delete a PAIR air injection system, stop the ECU cutting the fuel on the overrun, disable an airbox intake flap control valve – even access secret hidden functions, like a downshift blipper on Kawasaki’s ZX-10R, or a race mode in the dashboard. The cleverest trick we saw in the Woolich Racing ECU editing kit? Using the standard exhaust valve connector wires into the ECU to operate a quickshifter, when the stock bike doesn’t have any way to run one. A proper genius move that one…
So there you have it – four different reasons why ECU editing has really taken off in the past few years. And as bikes get more and more complex, with the ECU in charge of more functions, ECU editing is only going to become more and more relevant.
Seeing is believing
To see first-hand what happens when you get your ECU edited, we went down to Steve Jordan Motorcycles near Box Hill in Surrey. Steve and Sarah Jordan have been running the store since 2003, and over the past few years, they’ve begun to specialise in ECU editing and mapping, using their Dynapro dyno, and a wide range of ECU hardware and software.
We watched Steve as he mapped a customer’s Yamaha MT-09 Tracer. The owner wanted the fuelling improved (the bike was stock, engine-wise), the speed limits removed, and he also wanted the power mode set so that it didn’t reset each time he stopped. The first step is to access the ECU, so that Steve can fit the special Woolich wiring harness. This uses some pins on the ECU connector that are left empty on production bikes, which lets the Woolich interface ‘talk’ to the black box through this new connector. Access varies according to the bike, but on this Tracer, Steve was spending a fair bit of time removing bodywork to get to the connector under the fuel tank. Once the harness is in place, the bike goes on the dyno, and Steve plugs his computer into the Tracer, using one of the special Woolich adapters, via a USB connector on the PC. Now, the Woolich software boots up, and Steve can access the settings he wants to change.
Some of this is simple box-ticking stuff: the Woolich kit is set up really well for the operator, and many functions are automated. Other parts of the mapping though take much longer – especially the fuelling, ignition and throttle valve adjustments. In theory, with an all-new bike, or some very extreme tuning, Steve would have to spend hours and hours making up a completely new base map of settings. But one advantage of specialising in this work is that you build up a library of mods which you can tap into. So if you’ve done one stock MT-09 Tracer ECU map, then you store that on the PC, and next time you get one in, you have a good starting point to begin from. Fine-tuning a map that’s already 95 per cent there is much less of a ball-ache, and customers benefit from faster turnarounds and lower prices (the Tracer owner was having this done while he waited). If you do the ECU editing yourself, you can get ‘generic’ fuel, ignition and throttle valve maps fromWoolich to broadly suit your needs. For a totally bespoke map of the engine running characteristics though, you really need a dyno and skilled operator.
Back to our Tracer, and Steve makes the mods which the customer has asked for – removing the speed limiter and the power mode reset, and then he starts to work on the maps for ignition, fuel injection and throttle valve position. He’s got a base ‘optimised’ map to begin with, and he’ll load this onto the ECU, and that will get him very close to the best settings for this Tracer. After that, it’s a case of using the dyno to check the power and air/fuel ratio all through the rev range and at all the different throttle openings. Some fine-tuning here and there, and the Tracer mapping is done, a few hours after the owner rode in.
Another hour to put all the bodywork back into place, and the Tracer is well and truly sorted – fuelling, throttle valves, ignition and other ECU settings all set up to give a sweet-running bike. All of this done without MotoGP-spec technicians, it just took Steve Jordan’s wisdom and Woolich Racing’s class leading mapping technology.
Woolich is perhaps the number one name in ECU editing. Based in Australia, the firm was set up by Justin Woolich, and has grown unrecognisably over the space of 15 years. Woolich actually produce their own hardware and software to access the ECU directly. End users can buy the adapter to access their bike, and a licence to edit their own ECU as much as they want. Woolich offer loads of support, and there’s a thriving forum on the website, where people swap ideas and fixes, and loads of help is widely available. The firm also have a UK-based operation to support owners and tuners directly, avoiding the big time-zone differences between Oz and Blighty. Give them a shout or click on their website for more details: www.woolichracing.co.uk
The downside of ECU editing is that many bikes just can’t be worked on at the moment. Some firms seem to be preventing tuners getting into their ECUs – the most recent Triumphs, for example, have cryptographic locks on their engine management systems, and they can’t be accessed at all by the aftermarket. BMW’s S1000 range can be edited – but you need to cut open the ECU casing, and make alterations to the circuitry with a soldering iron before you can access the data, which puts most people off.
But a lot of current bikes can be edited more easily. The Woolich Racing website has a detailed list of bikes which they support, including Ducati, Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki models. The easiest way is to get your bike mapped is by visiting an established dyno shop, which carries out ECU editing work. Some tuning centres will flash your ECU by post – send your unit to them and they can alter the settings on the bench, with a generic map for your needs.
If you’re feeling handy, you can buy the harness and software yourself, and get hacking into your own bike. Without a dyno you’ll not be able to make your own perfect customised maps so easily. But you’ll be able to install maps and alter a lot of the other settings. In lieu of a dynamometer, Woolich does offer an AutoTune setup, which uses datalogging and a special exhaust gas oxygen sensor to measure how your engine is running. You use this to log running on the road (or track), and then the Woolich software can go back, look at what was happening on the logged data, and make suggestions on how to alter the ECU to improve matters. So, if the datalogger shows that the fuelling is too rich at 80 per cent throttle, at 4,000rpm, then it notes that down in a data file, and later on, the Woolich software will tweak your ECU map at that point to reduce the amount of fuel going into the motor, improving running and power.
That’s a bit of a simplification: it’s an involved process, and you’ll need to be on your toes to sort it. But if you’re an inveterate fiddler, and have time to try it, it could be a very satisfying project indeed…
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