Programming Engine ECMs

One of the most common questions we receive from clients are requests if they can purchase software to program Electronic Control Modules (ECMs) on todays commercial trucks. Most often they are referring to the engines such as CAT, Cummins, Detroit, Mack, Volvo, International, and others. Before we answer that question, we need to dive a little deeper to make sure the customer is asking the right question to begin with.

Parameter changes vs Programming

Quite often, when customers ask to do “programming”, they are using the wrong terminology. If you are simply looking to change parameters on an engine, this is not considered programming. Examples of parameters that you may want to change:

  • Maximum road speed
  • Maximum cruise control speed
  • Adjust idle shut down timer
  • PTO setttings

There are literally hundreds of parameters that can be set on todays modern electronic engines found in commercial trucks. There are also a variety of tools available to do this that range from OEM software to aftermarket software such as Noregon JPRO, TEXA IDC5, PF-Diagnose, and many others. You will find a big difference in these aftermarket programs. For example, JPRO can change around 5 parameters on Cummins engines. The TEXA dealer level diagnostic tool can do over 100.

The other question we ask clients when talking about programming is the ability to program injectors. For this, the options are much more limited. While OEM software will work great for programming injectors, the purchase price can be very high and annual fees add up quickly. The only aftermarket tool we know of that does injector programming on all engines would the one from TEXA, which has the added benefit of no annual fees.

Programming ECMs Properly

Every week we have customers that have acquired the ability to reprogram ECMs but run into an issue. The most common reason is that they are doing the programming improperly. With todays sophisticated trucks, there is a lot of traffic on the vehicle connectors. This includes ABS, transmission, GPS, engine, cab controllers, and many more. While programming through the dash connector may work, it is not recommended unless you pull fuses for all other ECMs on the vehicle.

Alternatively, the best way to program ECMs is to bypass the datalink entirely and connect straight to the ECM. This would allow you to program ECMs both on the vehicle and on the work bench. Our company, Diesel Laptops, manufactures and sells a complete line of bypass and breakout cables for exactly this reason.

The other best practice we always recommend is backing up your ECM before making any changes. Most software offers the ability to create this backup, which they may call an image, work order, template, or something along those lines. We also recommend printing all engine parameters to PDF or regular paper, so you have a backup as well. Failure to backup your current engine configuration can turn a 30-minute job into an entire day.

Why do you need to program?

This is always the first question we ask clients. Most often we are told “because it will fix the truck.” However, we don’t see this as the case most times. When a new truck or engine leaves the factory, there is often quite a bit of programming done by the dealer the first year or two. This is while the truck is under warranty, and all the costs are absorbed by the manufacturer. Once a truck gets a couple years old, the “bugs” in the software are worked out and the customers have been taken care of. A lot of OEMs are now doing “over the air” programming, which means they will just program the ECM of a truck while it is out in the field and doesn’t need to be brought back to the dealer.

Let’s take a step back and think about a situation. You have a 5-year old truck in the shop, and a technician has diagnosed it and said it needs a software update. This truck has been running for 5-years, and just now it has a software “bug” that needs to be programmed so it can be fixed? Probably not. It is more than likely a mis-diagnosed issue. While we agree that a lot of troubleshooting from the OEMs will state that you should calibrate an ECM to the most current software level, this very rarely resolves the issue. The software updates from manufacturers such as Cummins clearly tell you what the bug fixes are. In our experience, less then 10% of all ECM programming requests resolve the issue.

Reprogramming Engine ECMs

If you are looking to do more then program injectors and change parameters on an engine, we will now go in-depth on each commercial engine and discuss your options, availability, and pricing. We aren’t talking about “tuning” ECMs, but simply using software to upgrade the software level on the ECM or program a new one. The only way to perform ECM programming on commercial trucks is with the OEM software used by dealers.

Programming Mack and Volvo ECMs

The good news here is that Mack and Volvo (both are owned by Volvo) allow you to do programming on their vehicles. They allow you to perform calibration updates (new software levels) and new software installs (blank ECMs you purchase from a dealer) on the Engine ECM, Aftertreatment Control Module (ACM), Transmission ECU (TECU), and Vehicle ECU. The bad news is that they only allow you to do this on EPA 2013 and new emission vehicles. If you have a 2012 or older, your only option is the dealer.

To pile on the bad news, we need to discuss price. If you wish to program only Mack or Volvo ECMs, the price is roughly $1,800. If you wish to do both, they give a slight discount at $3,000. Furthermore, if you are doing ECM programming on Volvo and Mack you will want to make sure to keep your software updated, which will run you around $250 per year after the first year.

Programming Cummins ECMs

Cummins is another engine manufacturer that allows end-users to perform ECM programming…. kind of. Cummins is constantly changing the rules and reasons for who can perform ECM programming and who can’t. As it stands of the date of this blog post, you can purchase Cummins Insite Pro for around $1,300 per year.

However, to be eligible to purchase Cummins Insite Pro you must also complete their basic training courses. This involves passing several online courses that should you are competent in the Cummins Insite software. You can find more information on this by looking at the Cummins Training website. You will also need to register yourself on Cummins QuickServe Online (free), along with obtaining a Cummins Service Training ID (free). However, expect some costs involved to pass the required training classes.

Once you’ve done all the training, and jumped through all the hoops, you are then eligible to purchase a Cummins Insite Professional license. However, there are still some limitations.

If you find yourself needed a fleet calibration from Cummins, you will not be able to purchase one. They have now made these only available to authorized Cummins dealers. You would need a fleet calibration if you are flashing a new ECM for the first time, or you are trying to change the ECM software level currently on the ECM to a completely new variant. If you are simply performing a software level update, you won’t need a fleet calibration.

The short story with Cummins ECM programming is that to do ECM programming you will have to jump through a lot of hoops, pass required training, and you still can’t do it to the level that dealers and distributors can.

Programming International Engine ECMs

The programming of Navistar engines such as the MaxxForce, N-Series, DT466, and plenty of others is one of the easiest to do. There are no required training classes required, and the price is reasonable compared to the others. As of the date of this blog post, the price is right around $700 per year for this privilege. You simply need to purchase a program called NavKal, and we have a great blog post that goes into more depth on this particular piece of software.

Programming Detroit Diesel Engine ECMs

Detroit Diesel also allows end users to reprogram engine controllers. However, they are like Cummins in the fact that you will need to jump through a lot of hoops to do it. The first step is creating an account on www.AccessFreightliner.com. When you register, you will be asked to provide the last 6 digits of the VIN for any vehicle you currently own. Freightliner will then verify that the vehicle you provided is registered to your company in their system. If it is not registered to you, please contact your local dealership and ask them to register it.

Once you’ve created your account, you can then talk to Detroit about purchasing the Diagnostic Link 8 Professional software. Currently, the price is around $2,200 per year for the privilege to program Detroit ECMs. This does include the diagnostic software package as well, which is around $750 per year.

Programing CAT ECMs

While other engine manufacturers have allowed end users to do at least some programming of ECMs, CAT is not. CAT has not made an on-highway engine in almost 10 years, and they have no future plans to do so. Your only option when it comes to CAT ECM programming is to bring it to your local CAT dealer or distributor.

Programming PACCAR Engine ECMs

This section covers the MX-11 and MX-13 engines from PACCAR. If you are looking to program PX-Series engines, these are simply Cummins engines rebranded as PACCAR. For PX-Series you can use Cummins software.

For the MX-11 and MX-13, you will not be able to purchase software to do programming. Purchasing their software is difficult enough, along with being very expensive. Even if you purchase their diagnostic software, you are blocked from many any engine parameter changes or doing programming. All these functions require server authentication from PACCAR, which they have reserved for dealers only.

Programming Other Component ECMs

Today’s vehicles have more than one ECM, as computers are now controlling the braking system, cab functions, chassis functions, transmission, and many more. While most engine programming is available as outlined above, the other ECMs found on a truck are even more limited.

Programming Allison ECMs

Allison is the commercial truck industries only true fully automatic transmission, and they also do allow customers to perform programming. However, they do place some restrictions and requirements on it. To start with, you are going to need to purchase the Allison DOC Premium software for around $1,200. This software will expire after a year, and then you are looking at around $500 per year to keep it activated. As with other software, the Allison DOC Premium also includes the normal diagnostic software as well. This software will allow you to do the following:

  • FuelSense 2.0 reprogramming (Enables fleets to optimize fuel economy)
  • Reprograming of dynamic shift sensing
  • Reprogramming of retarder
  • Reprogramming of shift selectors
  • Reprogramming of selected TCM parameters (You must pass Allison Training for access)

The important thing to note here is that Allison does not allow complete programming of the transmission control module (TCM). This is reserved for dealers and distributors only.

Programming of Eaton ECMs

With the rising popularity of semi-automatic transmission, Eaton has quickly become the standard in this market. The software you are looking for is called Eaton ServiceRanger Professional. The software license will run around $1,800 per year, unless you purchase a 3-year package for around $3,500. This software will allow you to perform vehicle product software updates, but don’t expect to get the ability to program a blank TCM. This function is still reserved for dealerships and distributors.

Programming Bendix ECMs

ABS systems are one of those vehicle safety things that people take very seriously, especially attorneys. Currently Bendix does not allow anyone besides their engineers to program a Bendix ECM. If you need a Bendix ECM programmed, you will need to bring your vehicle to the nearest dealer. They will work with Bendix to get an engineer remote access to the vehicle. Bendix has a special engineering program they use, and they will do all the work. The exception to this appears to be with Mack and Volvo, as dealers can program the ABS modules on those vehicles through their Mack and Volvo software.

Programming Meritor WABCO ECMs

Meritor has taken a slightly different approach to Bendix. To perform Meritor WABCO ECM programming, you would need to take these steps:

  • Purchase the Meritor WABCO ABS Software.
  • Sign up for a free account on Meritors Website.
  • Fill out their form to obtain a price. This form includes VIN number, old ECU part #, new ECU part #, and the new ECU serial number. You then hit a button to obtain a price for the file, along with the ability to purchase it and download. We have seen pricing range from $75 to $500 for a single file.

Summary

In short, you can get into vehicle and engine programming but only to a certain level. Most often it is best to work with your local dealership, unless you are doing a lot of programming. The fees are typically very expensive, and most often ECM programming is not needed. We often find that technicians that are performing software updates and calibrations are doing it improperly by using the data port instead of going direct to the ECM. This leads to more problems and hassle then it is worth.