Exclusive: Say Goodbye to Chip Tuning – Open CAN Bus Going Away in Two Model Cycles

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

According to someone that I consider to be an impeccably reliable source, you can say goodbye to being able to fiddle with your car’s electronic control devices to make it go faster because chip tuning and the open CAN bus that allows it are going away.

When I saw that the University of Michigan’s Mobility Transformation Center (part of the university’s Transportation Research Institute) was going to have a groundbreaking for the new Michigan Mobility Transportation Facility, a 32 acre, simulated urban traffic environment where automotive connectivity and autonomous vehicles will be able to be tested by students, faculty and industrial engineers, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to attend. It was only a ceremonial groundbreaking, held about a 1/4 mile from the actual site of the MMTF, and there was likely just going to be some speeches from officials at the university and from Michigan’s Department of Transportation, which is paying half the cost of the $6.5 million facility. It didn’t seem that there’d be much real news at the event that couldn’t be gleaned from a press release (like the fact that several companies are joining the UMMTC as industry partners, including Bosch, Verizon, Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Xerox). Still, it was really the first nice day all spring, after a long, brutal winter, and I like Ann Arbor, having lived there for almost a decade years ago. Also, there are a number of fun-to-drive routes between my house and UofM’s north campus. While the event turned out to have as little “news” as predicted, I did find out something that will be of interest and concern to car enthusiasts, particularly those of us who like to tune their cars for more performance.

The University of Michigan’s college of engineering has had a close relationship with the auto industry that dates back about a century. The domestic auto companies and their executives have endowed engineering faculty positions as well as funded quite a bit of research at the University. Michigan’s engineering school is a major reason why Toyota, Hyundai/Kia and Mitsubishi all have their North American R&D centers in the Ann Arbor area. That’s why in addition to the various university and government employees at the ceremony, lunch and afternoon conference on the new facility that followed, there were also a number of engineers from a variety of automobile companies, vendors and firms whose business touches on vehicle connectivity.

The vendor presence explains why an old friend of mine was there. Way back in the 1980s, before the “World Wide Web”, when the “internet” meant just email and Usenet newsgroups, I was a staff member for a religious educational organization with a handful of offices around North America. It seemed like a good idea to set up a computer bulletin board system so that we could share information and communications internally as well as making our resources available to the nascent online community. I was a computer neophyte then but a friend referred me to a mutual acquaintance that I’ll call Ruby, who was a computer security professional and sat on some of the committees that established standards for the young internet. Ruby not only mentored me about early DOS based machines and software, he donated an IBM 5150 (later known as the IBM PC) with a 10 megabyte hard drive to the non-profit that I was working with, to host the BBS. Before I met him, Ruby had worked as a systems analyst and programmer for one of the major automobile companies at a time when the automobile industry was beginning to embrace the digital age in a big way. He was involved in some of the early working groups that digitally connected the auto industry. Besides the fact that he knows more about computers than anyone else that I know personally, he’s also one of the smartest people in general that I know. He’s the only person that I know who can program a computer, true a bicycle wheel and build a harpsichord.

Since then, Ruby’s worked for a variety of computer security firms, which is why he was at the event today in Ann Arbor. A few years back, a major network and data provider bought his employer and they’re now actively involved in the whole connected car thing. I spotted him at the lunch following the ceremony and when I said hello we started talking about autonomous cars. I was speaking from the perspective of a car enthusiast and I said that autonomous cars didn’t worry me. They’d probably reduce accidents from poor drivers and that all the moaning and wailing from car guys about the death of enthusiasm due to autonomous cars is a bit premature. After all, I told Ruby, when electronic ignition, electronic fuel injection and digital engine control devices came in, enthusiasts were worried that they wouldn’t be able to tinker with cars for performance, but since then we’ve seen car guys go from changing carburetor jets to “chip tuning”, making changes to the way the car’s ECU operates the engine.

That’s when Ruby said, almost matter of factly, “Yeah, but all that’s going away. The open bus will be gone in two model cycles.” Automakers currently use something called the CAN bus. Years ago computer designers decided to use the word bus (from the Latin omnibus, “for all”) to describe something that lets one part of a computer to talk to another part of the computer. The Controller Area Network is a bus standard used by automakers to allow electronic devices in a car or truck to communicate with each other. Because it is an “open” bus that allows data to flow in both directions, the CAN bus is also what lets you plug your tuning gizmo into the OBD port and change the engine mapping.

I pressed him and said that hackers would likely still be able to access control systems, and he replied, with dead seriousness, “The systems will be hardened. The only features that you’ll be able to modify are those that the automakers and regulators will let you modify.” While you might be tempted to dismiss that as conspiracy talk, the source is indeed one of the world’s experts on computer and electronic communications security. When I asked him for a reason, he said that he couldn’t get into details then and there, that we should speak later, but in brief it has to do with safety, liability and regulatory compliance. Liability seemed to be the biggest concern. With their deep pockets, any safety issue caused even by a third party application will end with litigation targeting the automakers. He noted that even Ford’s OpenXC open source interface, which encourages third party application development, only gives passive access to vehicle data and can’t control vehicle systems.

In TTAC’s recent discussion of the “line lock” feature that Ford will be offering on the 2015 Mustang, our readers touched on the topic of “Easter eggs” and hacks that let you, via the car’s infotainment system, alter some of the control systems. From what my computer security expert tells me, built in features like line lock may proliferate but while automakers may offer some trick software features with one hand, the other hand is tightening its grip over what third parties and users will be able to do. Since some of the restrictions seem to be related to the implementation of vehicle connectivity, I guess this is another reason why car enthusiasts won’t like autonomous cars.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

Ronnie Schreiber
Ronnie Schreiber

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, the original 3D car site.

More by Ronnie Schreiber

Join the conversation
2 of 83 comments
  • LuciferV8 LuciferV8 on May 08, 2014

    I'm betting this is where custom designed stand-alone engine management systems step in to save the day. The proliferation of cheap ARM chips will make this affordable for the average joe. The only other obstacle (and the bigger, more pressing issue IMHO) is going to come from the Agenda 21 nutjobs who want to gut the economy and corral all us proles in the cities.

  • EricJ EricJ on May 09, 2014

    I can all-but guarantee that CAN is not going away, nor will it decline, unless something drastically simpler and cheaper appears. We're still using RS232 (in full spec, lower-voltage, and TTL) in a huge percentage of modern designs. Are there any companies that produce de-tuned "life-extending" or "low-octane" configurations for higher-performance engines?

  • Fred There is also a case going before the SCOTUS https://www.levernews.com/scotus-is-considering-a-deregulation-bomb/ It's about a convenience store challenging debt card fees. But it could be used to restrict government agencies from regulating industry. Warning, this is a liberal site that some may find difficult to believe
  • Vatchy And how is the government going to recoup the losses from gas taxes and EV incentives? They are going to find another way to tax us. Maybe by attaching a GPS device to every car and charging by the mile.
  • Kwik_Shift And the so-called GND / TGR experts were so sure of themselves.
  • Verbal It seems there is an increasing number of cases where the factories send out software updates to fix their products in the customer fleet. Either their software engineers don't know what they're doing, or the factories are using their customers as beta testers, or both.
  • Kwik_Shift "But wait...there's more!"