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Mark Gearhart: The World of Automotive Analog is Now Digital

Intake air temperature, oxygen, knock, mass air flow – some of these sensor names are still Greek to many people out there. For those that know what they are, you have really only used these words in tuning for the last few decades.  A new computer bought today is old technology tomorrow and while the automotive technology can lag, recently it has caught back up with the information age. This all sounds like a trip around the “Spaceship Earth” ride at Epcot, but it’s a reality that has been emerging more and more in the performance aftermarket in just the last couple years.

Remember when you needed that many gauges?

I built my first performance vehicle in the late 1990s and I remember paying a lot of money to get it tuned, at best, semi “correctly”.  There was that one guy in my town (or that you had to fly in) that specialized in the type of aftermarket standalone ECU I had.  He charged me an exorbitant amount of money to dyno test it, because he knew that he was the only one that could do it.  Whether it was switch chips, EPROMs or the more advanced ‘on the fly’ tuners that still needed to be shut down between adjustments. It was a bunch of numbers on a grid that was ran on MS-DOS-looking programs. It sucked.

Remember all the gauges?  It was like sitting in the cockpit of a commercial airliner.  Boost, coolant temp, fuel pressure, oil pressure, oil temperature, EGT (pyrometer), air/fuel, and more could be seen in ONE vehicle at any local hang out spot.  There are even companies that specialize in making gauge holders that fit in inconspicuous places just because there was no more room on your pillar, dash, and air vents.  Between the tuning and gauges cost, you were knee deep in a second mortgage on your house.

Traditional gauges are still functional, but race-only type gauges can be substituted for digital, portable types.

Finally (thank God) technology has caught up.  No longer do you need a pillar full of gauges to get the information you need or pay a tuner to fly in to tune your vehicle. Don’t get me wrong, pillar gauges are still a vital asset to have – I have an AEM boost and water/meth gauge in my 2011 Mustang – but the less vital gauges can now be consolidated into LCD displays.

For example, I use SCT’s Touch Screen Xtreme at the track to both monitor and datalog intake air temp, coolant temp, and my wide band, plus load in track-only tunes.  Plus, the tune in my vehicle is so stable that I don’t need to look at anything else while I drive. Additionally, an AEM X-WIFI wirelessly streams dual EGT and a single channel wide band directly to my iPhone…without the need of an app.  Now anyone has the ability to monitor over 50 critical engine functions with a single device.

New digital tuners like the SCT TSX can not only tune your vehicle, but monitor a wide range of sensors in a wide variety of layouts. The X-WIFI (right) streams dual EGT and a single channel wideband to mobile devices.

An additional option that has made monitoring easier is the addition of 0-5 volts output from an electronic gauge controller.  This added feature allows a single gauge signal to be inputed into a variety of data loggers and stand alones.

Where prices have tumbled the most in the last 10 years is the cost of tuning.  While stand alones still have their place in racing, factory computers have become so advanced that power levels of over 1000HP on the stock PCM is now a reality. More manufactures are using wide band 02 sensors from the factory, (like the 2011 Mustang) as it offers spot-on air/fuel ratios regardless of driving conditions. They are so repeatable that you can simply tell a tuner what modifications are on the vehicle and get a properly-operating tune right in your email inbox. For carbureted folks that are scared to convert, there are kits like FAST’s EZ-EFI that installs on a vehicle in a few hours and never has to be taken to a dyno to tune.

While the 1960s might have been the best time to be a muscle car enthusiast, I believe that 40 years down the road the late 2000s will become the new prime era to own muscle cars.  Not only are the vehicles more powerful, but the ability to make more horsepower has become so much easier.

Even for people with carburetors can convert to fuel injection in a few hours and run a auto tuned PCM.



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