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Hack Your Car 838

gurps_npc writes "The New York Times has this story about hacking your car's chip. You can get significant horse power and torque boosts (+18 horsepower and +70 foot pounds of torque in the given example), as well as improve (or decrease) fuel efficency. The car companies do not like (surprise surprise) people personalizing their vehicle's programming and warn of burning out your engine with bad code, and voiding your warranty."
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Hack Your Car

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  • by MakoStorm ( 699968 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:00PM (#8276061)
    I would tinker with the insides of any computer, or any electronic device.

    But on the other hand, if I make a mistake with a car I could hurt or kill myself.

    I think I will just leave them alone and keep hacking my Xbox and Tivo, I cant die if I screw up my Tivo.
    • by DrInequality ( 521068 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:04PM (#8276097) Homepage
      I cant die if I screw up my Tivo.

      I'd die pretty quickly without my Tivo!

    • I cant die if I screw up my Tivo

      Sure you can. Have you seen the unshielded power supply?
    • by Elwood P Dowd ( 16933 ) <> on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:12PM (#8276182) Journal
      Tivos are probably the most dangerous of consumer appliances to service. Very high voltages (up to 5000 V) at potentially very high currents (AMPs) are present when operating - deadly combination. These dangers do not go away even when unplugged as there is an energy storage device - a high voltage capacitor - that can retain a dangerous charge for a long time. If you have the slightest doubts about your knowledge and abilities to deal with these hazards, replace the Tivo or have it professionally repaired.

      Careless troubleshooting of a Tivo can not only can fry you from high voltages at relatively high currents but can irradiate you as well. When you remove the metal cover of the Tivo oven you expose yourself to dangerous - potentially lethal - electrical connections. You may also be exposed to potentially harmful levels of television emissions if you run the Tivo with the cover off and there is damage or misalignment to the waveguide to the Tivo chamber.

      Just kidding. I got that text from a warning in a guide to microwave repair [].
      • by Theaetetus ( 590071 ) <> on Friday February 13, 2004 @10:53PM (#8276781) Homepage Journal
        Tivos are probably the most dangerous of consumer appliances to service. Very high voltages (up to 5000 V) at potentially very high currents (AMPs) are present when operating - deadly combination

        Good thing I don't pay your electric bill... Remember, power (watts)=voltage*current(amps). So, if you've got 5kv*even 1 A, you've got 5000 watts of power.

        As an aside - I work at a radio station. Our main transmitter has a forward power output of 4.2 kW. And we're a big station (translates to 7.2 kW TPO and 40 kW ERP). If your Tivo was consuming 5 kW of power, you'd need close to 2-3 tons of air conditioning, just to cool your living room.

        Tivos are solid-state devices (plus the hard drive, but still) - high voltage, low current. If it were high current, think of all those traces on the PC board that would burn up.

        Incidentally, television picture tubes, as mentioned by others, are at very high voltages... but very low current. We're talking milliamps here. Again, our backup transmitter is a tube transmitter - 7.2 kV plate voltage, but only 384 mA plate current.


    • by jqh1 ( 212455 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:48PM (#8276435) Homepage
      why not extend the control up to a little UI that is accessible from the driver's seat? Assuming the car will respond to "hot" changes in chip instructions, you could, for instance, drive around most of the day in great gas mileage mode, but when you notice you're being chased by Guido the Killer Pimp, you can make an immediate adjustment to max horsepower. After you get away, you switch back to economy mode because you'll burn up your engine if you don't.

      • This is exactly what many aftermarket engine management systems do. My mechanic/tuner for instance happens to use a Haltech [] ECU in his car. Systems like this essentially replace your factory ECU and allow a full range of cusotmization of your engine's various settings. The Haltech operates via a serial link with a laptop (kind of sucks for some people that their new laptops don't even have serial ports) and you can make changes on the fly. When he's tuning a car, he does in effect drive around with his laptop, accelerating, decelerating, watching the graphs on the screen, and making adjustments as needed.

        You simply make an adjustment on the computer and then upload the new engine map (map of fuel mixture, timing, etc.) to the ECU. His RX-7 pushes close to 500 HP at the rear wheels (an exceptoinal number, even more so when you consider that most manufacturer's horespower claims are at the crank shaft, before any powerloss due to drivetrain) and can still get 22MPG cruising on the freeway. City driving is much worse, but that's beside the point. But he basically can adjust the fuel mixture on the fly for better or worse gas mileage, and for drivability. It's really fascinating stuff if you're at all interested in modifying cars.
    • by billstewart ( 78916 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @10:02PM (#8276516) Journal
      You younger kids may not remember the days when "hacker" was a new term for the public (mostly used by news people to describe scary teenage computer vandals), but my analogy at the time was that computer hackers are really no different from the teenage kids who always used to hack on cars. Some are good kids trying to make their mom's old car keep running, and some are annoying punks who want to go fast, make lots of noise, drag-race on residential streets, and drive across your lawn.

      You really can hack real stuff! Get your hands dirty, try things out, don't just spend all your time in front of a screen. Go to Burning Man, meet babes, do woodwork and risky art projects, try gardening, cook with ingredients you've never used before, make beer, spend time in the real world!

      There are things you shouldn't do to cars unless you know what you're doing, and maybe that means taking an evening class in auto mechanics at some nearby high school. Brakes, for instance, are things that you should be really really sure about before doing anything other than looking at them or refilling fluids, and steering's kind of that way. If a car won't stop, that's bad, but if it won't go anywhere, that's not good, but at most it's usually just money and hassle. So don't be afraid of working on the engine. Of course, that was better advice back when I was in college, when cars had real parts like carbs and distributors instead of just computer controls, and the cars I could afford mostly needed to have their real parts tinkered with a lot to keep them happy. I never got really deeply into it, because I wasn't that good at it (:-), but it's still worth playing with a bit, just to know what's going on.

  • This is no new thing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by CptChipJew ( 301983 ) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `rellimleahcim'> on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:01PM (#8276070) Homepage Journal
    People have been doing this ever since computer controlled fuel injection has been in style.

    If you peruse eBay, you'll see people selling replacement chips for around $400 that are supposed to add this many horsepower.

    But if you think you're going to get another 70ft/lbs of torque in a Honda Civic by just doing that, think again.

    As well, changing these values can be dangerous. I have a friend who quite messed up his Buick Riviera (he added fuel injection) by messing with the values. There was a huge table of values to fill out, and each had to be precicely tuned to achieve the right mix of performance and mileage. This is no easy task.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:13PM (#8276193)
      But if you think you're going to get another 70ft/lbs of torque in a Honda Civic by just doing that, think again.

      Everyone knows that the only way to get 70 ft-lbs more torque from a civic is to cover it in Type-R stickers and put a big wing on the back.

      For a good laugh at the riceboy industry, surf on over to [].
      • by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @10:22PM (#8276617)
        if you think you're going to get another 70ft/lbs of torque
        Just think how many more furlongs per fortnight you can get in speed with those extra 70 foot pound force in torque. You'd have to use more than a dram of extra fuel - bushels more I expect, but it's this sort of confusion you get with good old US measures like the BRITISH thermal unit, instead of bringing measurement screaming into the eighteenth century.

        Enough silliness, back to the scheduled program.

    • by BiggerIsBetter ( 682164 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:13PM (#8276195)

      If you peruse eBay, you'll see people selling replacement chips for around $400 that are supposed to add this many horsepower.

      And unless you buy a matched kit with cam, inlet, exhaust, etc, you're just gambling that it will work better than your existing setup. If you're paying $400 for a chip, you'd be better off buying [] (or building []) a programmable computer instead. Then spend some dyno time and get it set up right.

  • by maxbang ( 598632 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:02PM (#8276077) Journal

    My car would run better if it had a fucking dorito installed in it. Stupid mitsubishi.

  • by Jason1729 ( 561790 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:02PM (#8276080)
    When I was taking Real-Time programming we discussed car code. The prof said it has a 7 year development cycle and takes about 2 developer hours per assembly instruction to write, test, and debug the code.

    I don't see a hacked code being anywhere near as reliable. Even if it makes the changes you want, your car might end up stalling as often as windows crashes.

    ProfQuotes []
    • by BiggerIsBetter ( 682164 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:08PM (#8276150)
      It's generally not the "code" that's being hacked, but the data lookup tables. Sure, you could rewrite your engine's algorithms and maybe add some features, but all most people do is edit the fuel map to richen the air/fuel mixture and balance the mechanical mods they've made (exhausts, air inlet, etc).
    • by pidge-nz ( 603614 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:11PM (#8276176)
      Generally speaking with regard to modded ECU's, what is usually being changed is the Open-loop fuel delivery and ignition maps. No programming changes, just tweaking a few values to better match the particular car when accelerating. When you car is cruising, the fuel and ignition map values are adjusted by feedback from the EGO (Exhaust Gas Oxygen) and knock sensors, to have the engine run at near stoichiometric. Even the aftermarket ECUs have fixed programming code, just adjustable maps and feature triggers (e.g. water injection, VVTi Cam control, turbo waste gate control, traction control igntion or fuel cut). But tuning the fuel and ignition maps does take a lot of time.
  • My Car Chip (Score:5, Funny)

    by nic barajas ( 750051 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:03PM (#8276083)
    I don't know what he's talking about. My '86 Toyota Camry doesn't have a chip, except where that modded '04 sports coupe flew by me.
  • Google link. (Score:5, Informative)

    by x136 ( 513282 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:03PM (#8276085) Homepage
    Altering Your Engine With New Chips []

    Hooray, I get to be a whore today! :P
  • by LostCluster ( 625375 ) * on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:03PM (#8276086)
    The article states that some of these hacked cars are violating state emissions standards. Yet, they also have the ability to reset their cars back to the factory settings whenever they need to. In fact, in some states, newer cars aren't even emissions tested every year because it's presumed they come out okay from the factory.

    "But if it wasn't for the smoke, I'd be happy with it," is I think the exact reason why car makers are underclocking the potential power of cars. This could be an enviromental problem waiting to happen if this catches on.
    • Even more fun is a federal law that can put you in jail and hit you with a huge fine if you mess with the emission equipment. I've got a '74 mgb and I can't replace its carb with an aftermarket one without violating the federal law. The fact that the original carb didn't meet emissions when it was new and is much worse than the older carbs and the aftermarket holly carb was designed to meet the emissions don't change the fact that its illeagal to use either option. There is a very limited amount of thin
    • Tree huggers... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by SuperBanana ( 662181 )
      The article states that some of these hacked cars are violating state emissions standards.

      And you know what? Their numbers are so small, and the cars aren't THAT far off(proper power requires engines be in good shape!) that this is a non-issue. What's an issue is the millions of trucks, trains and ships burning high-sulfur diesel fuel...or the clowns who drive around with their cars belching blue smoke. Then there are the SUVs which of course are nearly exempt from emissions testing! Don't get me sta

  • by Valar ( 167606 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:04PM (#8276103)
    ... my 1990 volvo 240.

    On second thought, I'd like to see them burn it out :)
  • by Illissius ( 694708 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:05PM (#8276118)
    Dan [] has a thing or two to say about these. He tends to be right an awful lot, too. Since /.ers are too lazy to click on a link, here's what he says:

    EPROM power!

    I have a question about your page [] on chip upgrades to improve car performance.

    Mainly, my question is why what you say, when the Powerchip [] site pretty much says the exact opposite on all counts.

    Would Powerchip lie outright, and provide a three year warranty with possibility for an extension for the drivetrain?

    In searching through the Web I only come across your opinion of a chip swap being a bad choice to upgrade. If you can refer me to your references I can make a better judgment on whether or not it really is not good to upgrade my ECU.


    First up: I didn't say that drop-in Electronic Control Unit (ECU) upgrades for otherwise stock vehicles were outright fraud, though some companies in that market have certainly been snake oil merchants. I just said that a drop in chip isn't likely to be good value compared with various actual mechanical upgrades. Powerchip, like various other chip vendors, will charge you several hundred Australian bucks for a new chip.

    Now that I've said that, dig this.

    A while after I put my piece on ECU chips up on the Web, one Wayne Besanko of Powerchip contacted me.

    He did not offer any independent evidence to support Powerchip's claims. Nor did he point out anything I'd said that was wrong.

    Instead, he offered me money, plane tickets and accommodation if I'd travel to Powerchip's HQ and write a "white paper" on Powerchip's products.

    He didn't say "here's a bucket of cash, if you write what we say", but our correspondence led me to the firm belief that, um, only one viewpoint on their products would be acceptable, were I to take up the offer.

    So there's that.

    And, again, as I write this, I remain unaware of any proper independent testing that indicates that these pricey drop-in ECU chips are good value, compared with a variety of actual mechanical modifications.

    Sure, you can get a bit more juice from a stock engine by goosing up the ECU programming; drop-in chips from reputable companies like Powerchip don't generally do nothing. I wouldn't be surprised if there were quite a few cars, particularly turbo diesels, that have sub-optimal stock ECU programming, leaning further towards the "green" end of the scale and away from the "performance" end than their owners would choose, given the option.

    The particular oddities of individual engines (in high performance cars, at least) may also benefit significantly from custom-tuned ECU maps, even if you aren't going for new cams, an after-market turbo, blah blah blah.

    But drop-in chips aren't tuned for individual engines. They're one-size-fits-all. If you want a chip that fits your car's engine in particular, you have to go to a speed shop that'll test your engine and blow an EPROM to suit.

    In the vast majority of cars, I think it's quite sensible to say that if you aren't making significant mechanical modifications to your engine, then the money you'd spend on a "hot chip" would be better put towards those modifications (or, you know, spent on the rent or something, but we're not talking about sensible life choices here). I think that even something as simple as a less restrictive air filter is likely to give you more horsepower per dollar than a hot chip.

    Even Powerchip themselves admit (or, at least, did admit at the time I corresponded with Wayne; I haven't groveled through their specs lately) that a 15% power and torque gain from a plain chip swap is unusually high. Figures closer to, or below, 10% are common. Some people would question even that - but even if you get a whole

    • by Mirror_rorriM ( 752395 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:38PM (#8276380)

      The truth is that turbocharged cars can benefit greatly from aftermarket ECUs, or "chipped" stock ECUs. There are lots of options out there, and gains of 80HP just from a chip are not unheard.

      I have verified these claims myself using my own car and the local 4WD dyno. In the case of my car, the tuner claimed a 57 crank HP improvement, and an extra 93ftlbs (also measured at the crank). What I found is that these numbers are, in fact, conservative. I have the dyno plots on my computer and would be more than happy to post them if any critics or skeptics want to be shot down.

  • by djroute66 ( 43321 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:06PM (#8276123) Homepage
    I would never drive or be a passenger of a car that is running my own firmware.

  • by G4from128k ( 686170 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:06PM (#8276127)
    Most cars are tuned for a compromise of fuel efficiency, low pollution, and reliability. So these mods will adversely affect these more mundane automotive goals.

    On the one hand, these high performance mods probably turn the car into serious emitter of nasty gases.

    On the other hand, the added stress probably shortens the lifespan of the engine and gets the car off the road that much sooner.
    • yep (Score:5, Informative)

      by rebelcool ( 247749 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:13PM (#8276192)
      with many of these chip mods, your car will no longer pass emissions inspections.

      A car engine is a complex, finely tuned piece of equipment where every variable is carefully thought through - and tested the hell out of over several years by their engineers.

      You can't expect to go modifying things willy-nilly and expect only gains without losses in other areas - particularly environmental and reliability. This is especially true where you're modifying things like engine tables.
  • i can understand (Score:5, Interesting)

    by SirSlud ( 67381 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:07PM (#8276139) Homepage
    look, I'm as open source, hacker-friendly as anybody, but I'm not sure I agree with allowing people to hack cars, planes, and the like ..

    basically, any technology which has the power to kill me, and is used in primarly public places that I roam in.

    can anybody else suggest other technologies that are used in everyday life, owned by most people, and used often in public places that have the power to kill me if they happen to 'go wrong'?
    • Re:i can understand (Score:5, Interesting)

      by digitalhermit ( 113459 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:29PM (#8276311) Homepage
      There are lots of self-loaders out there who think that adding more powder makes them shoot better. Or they modify their weapons because they read somewhere on the Internet that it would shave off a microsecond or two from the firing rate or lessen the trigger pull. Funny thing is that the people who have used the most bizarre rifles tend to shoot the worst.

      Airplanes you say?
      I live about 100 yards from a small airfield in South Florida. I was driving to work one morning and noticed a bunch of fire trucks and police a few doors away. Heard on the news later that day that an experimental plane had crashed into a house. I've seen a couple of these accidents so far (well, not the actual crash, but the after effects).

      Home wiring...
      I've visited lots of friends' houses that have really bad wiring jobs. I've seen lots of outlets that would fail inspection. At my last house the previous occupants had been running a small business from their converted garage. They had installed extra outlets to run the electrical equipment (heater, various electrical motors, etc..). Everything was connected to an extension cord with a bunch of daisy-chained power strips *behind the wall*.

  • by yzquxnet ( 133355 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:07PM (#8276145) Homepage
    Car tuners have been doing this since the advent of ECU controlled cars... I wouldn't even consider this hacking because it so common. Any reputable car shop can reflash your cars ECU and reprogram a variety of variable from fuel tables, transmission shifts, timing, etc. if it's in the ECU it can be reprogrammed.

    Also... on a vehicle from the factory with no aftermarket parts don't expect drastic gains, unless your vehicle is equiped with forced induction and the ECU has the ability to control the wastegate. IE. You're not going to get 50hp by 'hacking' your hondas ECU. More likely you'll get 5-10hp... even then it's usually a trade off of having to use higher octane fuel.

    I had my cars ECU reflashed to take advantage of higher octane fuel (increased timing) and recieved 13 rwhp and 15 rwlb/ft.
  • by LostCluster ( 625375 ) * on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:10PM (#8276167)
    This reminds me a bit too much of the "simple free digital cable PPV device" we see spammers selling. You hook it up, you "buy" as many order-with-your-remote shows as you can for a couple months, and then when the bill comes, you see just your base bill with no charges for the shows your watched.

    The device blocks the upstream communciations frequencies so your box can't call home, but allow the broadcast frequencies to pass through so you still get watchable signals. However, after a few months, the party's over. The cable company sends down a signal cutting off your service, and tells you you'll have to let the digital box call home before you can watch anything again. Guess what, the box has been keeping count all along. So you pay full price for everything you thought was free, and you're out the money you spent on a worthless device...

    If somebody's selling an unathorized upgrade without being willing to stand behind their product, you better watch out. Something's not right with the deal.
  • hard drive (Score:4, Funny)

    by DerProfi ( 318055 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:12PM (#8276185)
    Great googly moogly! My new Toyota has a hard drive in it?? Who woulda thunk it?!

    Partly to combat hackers, many carmakers are using encrypted chips in new models or, like Toyota, have done away with removable memory chips altogether. That has the e-mechanics shifting strategies, either by downloading new software directly into the computer's hard drive or attaching separate electronic devices that piggyback on the factory-installed control module and override it. Some of these devices alter the "rev limiter" that prevents engine speed from zooming beyond the red line or remove the speed governor that limits top-end performance.

  • by Grue ( 3391 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:13PM (#8276189) Homepage
    I keep thinking about getting a Toyota Prius, the ones with Bluetooth. But I REALLLY wish they offered a SDK or API to 3rd party developers. Imagine stepping into your car with your Bluetooth equipped iPod, and streaming mp3s to your car stereo? Or your Bluetooth enabled GPS unit, and displaying it on the cards LCD? Or downloading mileage information for reimbursement, or automatically dialing 911 on your cell phone when the emergency system (airbags/whatever) goes off. They could increase the value of the car untold amounts just by harnessing the power of all the coders out there.
  • New EPROMs are silly (Score:5, Interesting)

    by UPAAntilles ( 693635 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:15PM (#8276202)
    For the price of a generic EPROM, you could easily get mechanical upgrades that enhances your car even more than the EPROM. If you're going for extreme performance, after all the mechanical upgrades, get a special chip made specifically for you.

    Dan from DansData has written on it in a much better fashion than I ever could though...
    His main "hotchip" article []
    Scroll down to the EPROM stuff, he addresses his experiences with "Powerchip" []

    *Sigh* now the NYT is going to cause a bunch of people to waste money. People that don't know enough about cars are going to get preyed on by companies like "powerchip". Just like people in electronics stores that don't know enough about computers.
  • by Osty ( 16825 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:16PM (#8276211)

    As many others have pointed out, chipping a car is nothing new. However, many people have unrealistic expectations about reprogramming their ECU. In the article, they mostly mentioned turbocharged vehicles like the Jetta TDI or 944 Turbo. The BMW owner mentioned was unsatisfied with the change because naturally aspirated (NA) cars don't benefit well from remapped ECUs.

    Modifying a car's ECU mainly just adjusts air/fuel mixture, but on a turbo car it can also increase boost pressure. This is where the main hp gains can be found, but is also where you'll likely blow your engine. A NA car will need more modifications than just a chip to get anymore than a nominal power increase. Intake, headers, and exhaust are all necessary to increase airflow to take advantage of a performance chip. Even then you can generally only expect to make another 10hp at the very top end of your hp curve, and you might even lose torque at lower rpms (torque gets you up to speed, hp keeps you there).

    • The thing is, the VW/Audi 1.8T engine that is to commonly boosted to heck has a cast-iron Diesel block and forged steel crankshaft. Diesel setups are very strong to deal with the high torque, and the RPM limiting factor of Diesels is combustion expansion rate. So running a 1.8T at boost pressures up to 18 psi with gasoline isn't much different stress-wise than a normally-running Diesel. In short: the 1.8T is fricken' strong. This is a common trait amongst most turboed engines.
  • by foxtrot ( 14140 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:20PM (#8276241)
    Computer chips don't improve vehicle performance. Stickers, spoilers, and exhaust tips improve performance.

    I mean, duh...
  • not really news (Score:5, Interesting)

    by austad ( 22163 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:21PM (#8276247) Homepage
    This has been around forever. I remember back in high school you could get chips for domestic cars, but they didn't really give you a significant HP increase. Now, a lot of the imports are turbocharged, and in most cases, the computer controls the boost level. The GIAC X-chip I have in my S4 takes the HP from 240 up to 312, and almost 400 ft/lbs of torque. Add a few more mods, like replacing the horribly restrictive exhaust and downpipes, and a few other goodies, you're looking at nearly 400hp and 450ft/lbs of torque. Another thing they do is remove the stock speed limiter, which is usually either 130mph or 155mph depending on the car.

    There's a company called AEM [] that makes a replacement OBDII compliant computer that you can program yourself. They have it for several different models of cars, and a general one that you can splice in yourself if they don't make the harness for it. It's a pretty nifty little device. My friend bought one for his 3000GT and it allows you to remap timing, fuel maps, and just about everything else, and you can set thresholds too (for example, if you see knock, dump more fuel, if that doesn't solve it, back off the timing). It requires a lot of tuning to get it working right, but if you've invested the time and money to make your car put out 700hp, it's something you pretty much need.

    The thing that pisses me off, is there is currently no one making "tunable" computers for Audi right now. We're stuck with what the vendors feed us. So if I want to go and put some big ass Garrett turbos on my car, I don't have the ability to tune the computer properly to use them. Since I'd need bigger fuel injectors to prevent it from leaning out, a comparable pulse width with the bigger injectors would supply too much fuel and it would run extremely rich or not at all.

    In any case, some of the detuning is done for emissions purposes, some is done to reduce horsepower to get it in a lower insurance class, and some is done to avoid the dreaded "gas-guzzler" tax. Generally, the european version of the same car has way more power. My old Eclipse had a small plastic sleeve inside the boost solenoid, that when removed gave an extra few pounds of boost. The old Chevy CK work trucks had a panel over part of the airbox to restrict airflow, and if you removed it you got another 25hp.
  • by StandardCell ( 589682 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:23PM (#8276262)
    I knew a guy back at school in my undergrad who was insane. The biggest geek and hack you could meet, but a very genuine guy. His mom owned a Suzuki, and he pulled the engine control computer PROM and read it. He managed to reverse-engineer the code and actually found errors in it that would make the engine run non-optimally under certain idle conditions! He then modified the code to correct it and burned a new PROM. His mom actually said that the car ran a bit smoother from that point on.

    When you have to fix a manufacturer's coding mistake, it's a pretty sad situation. For the privileged few, it's a very nice and interesting hobby.
  • The problem (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Matey-O ( 518004 ) * <> on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:24PM (#8276275) Homepage Journal
    Manufacturers build in a given factor of safety overdesign to reduce the amount of warranty repairs they have to foot the bill for. They also design a vehicle holistically - The engine will not produce more power than the brakes can handle, the factory alignment won't allow a low-performance driver to get in trouble.

    Just because a fishtank valve can give a Supra another 100hp, does not mean the rest of the equation is up to the task.

    That said, i've seen some VERY impressive software upgrades in deisel pickups. I only wonder if the radiator is up to cooling the uprated potential heat generated and if the transmission is capabile of living under the added stress.

    (in the interests of fair reporting, this comes from a guy who built a 475 hp/500 ft-lb Corvette...and upgraded teh brakes at the same time...only to be stuck with a tranny bill when said motor had it's way with it.)
  • HP gains are real... (Score:5, Informative)

    by pongo000 ( 97357 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:25PM (#8276282)
    Ever wonder why, year after year, vehicles seem to "gain" HP with the same stock engine? That's because PCMs (power control modules) are programmed to artificially hinder a vehicle's performance. By tweaking timing parameters, shift points, etc., manufacturers can "gain" HP year after year without having to retool for engine modifications.

    Chip/PCM programmers operate by simply modifying the same tables as the manufacturer modifies when they want more HP for marketing purposes. It should be no surprise that the manufacturers are dead set against this.

    As for emissions, the new engines and computer systems monitor all aspects of the emissions system. Many states simply plug into the OBD-II computer for later-model vehicles and check to make sure no "fault" codes are set -- that's the extent of "emissions testing." To make an assertion that any modification to the PCM will cause emissions to increase is simply showing one's ignorance as to how today's vehicles operate.

    BTW, the OBD-II interface and protocol is an open protocol, available at cost from the SAE. There's nothing "secret" about how these PCMs operate. Of course, I wouldn't consider /. nor the NYTimes to be premier source of automotive knowledge.
  • Summary (Score:3, Insightful)

    by seangw ( 454819 ) <seangw&seangw,com> on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:26PM (#8276289) Homepage
    You don't get anything for free.
  • by FurryFeet ( 562847 ) < minus threevowels> on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:39PM (#8276384)
    And it is already water cooled! Woo hoo!
  • by gvc ( 167165 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:41PM (#8276397)
    Don't be quick to assume that the auto manufacturers are incompetent and that some script kiddie can find a performance tweak they overlooked.

    Many compromises are made in designing the control systems, and a mod chip just selects a different set of compromises. Some of these are:

    • Ignition timing. Advanced ignition timing may result in higher performance, but also may cause pre-ignition (knock) which will damage your engine unless you use premium fuel.

      Fuel economy.

      Driveability - throttle lag, stumbling, rough idle, run-on, are all issues of concern.

      Emissions. High combustion temperatures send NOx emissions through the roof.

      Maintenance intervals.


      Manufacturing cost.

    Of these, manufacturing cost (and emissions, if you're environmentally inconsiderate) are they only compromises for which your criteria are likely to be different from those of the manufacturer, and hence the ones where aftermarket modifications might help. I don't see why the particular firmware in the chip would affect manufacturing cost, so it boils down to the other issues.
  • by digitalhermit ( 113459 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:54PM (#8276471) Homepage
    Years ago I owned a '77 Camaro with a small block 350. I didn't know a thing about cars then. One of my first projects was to try to replace the stock carburetor with a Holley 4 barrel from an SS Monte Carlo. It actually fitted and only required a couple bends in the control wires to get it to work. I cranked the engine and was greeted by this sweet purring sound. Oooh yeah.
    About thirty seconds later I noticed flames shooting from the engine. Crap. Thinking it was something with the carburetor, I tried to fix and re-install the stock unit using a carburetor rebuild kit. It seemed simple enough -- replace a few springs, a float, clean some parts. I got everything back together and bolted the rebuilt carburetor into place. Cranked the engine. Sputter. Cough. Then my whole engine caught on fire as gasoline was leaking everywhere. The flames died pretty quickly but it scorched a bunch of parts. So I had to put the Holley back in place. I did, but noticed that the gasket was torn. Hell, I thought, if I tighten the bolts up enough there's no way any gas could leak from the seal...
    Was I ever wrong.

    What other stupid things have I done?

    I once forget to re-attach the lawn mower blade before testing the engine I'd just rebuilt. The funniest thing happened. Apparently the mass of the lawnmower blade is enough to slow down the RPMs of the engine. If the blade is removed the lawnmover spins very, very, VERY quickly. And just as quickly wrecks the engine. Lots of little coat-hanger like wire just flies out. And there's no way to get them back inside. I was trying to tweak the damned thing to spin a little faster...

  • ECU? What ECU? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by phyrebyrd ( 631520 ) * on Friday February 13, 2004 @09:58PM (#8276492) Homepage
    What ECU? My 1984 Chevy Van G20 doesn't have one. And ya know what? I'm happy! All that electronic MESS just serves to throw more chaos into a system that's designed around EXPLOSIVE ENERGY.

    Why bother with electronics, when you can do something that's time tested and proven -- mechanics. For every advantage electronics give you, there's an associated disadvantage -- Biggest disadvantage? More things can go wrong at any given moment in time, and the older the electronics, the more prone it is to failure and the harder it is to come by replacement parts.

    This simple maxim is just as true for stock cars as it is for modded cars. Case in point: My 1983 Nissan 280ZX is fuel injected, so it has an ECU. It has a stalling problem, yet all of the mechanics are fine. The problem is electrical -- most likely related to the ECU, but I'm not going to go pay someone $400 to find it, and then charge me a buttload more to fix it.

    With my van, since everything is mechanical, it's easy to find the problem... symptoms are fewer when a problem occurs... There's not too much guesswork in diagnosing it.

    Want to upgrade? Easy as pie. New cam, intake, exhaust system and a good quality carb. My choice? Edelbrock. Everything's designed to match, so the guesswork's been taken care of.

    Top that with an ECU upgrade that you'll pay just as much for as I did for the entire mechanical upgrade, and I'll guarantee you I have a buttload more HP per dollar spent.

    And I also guarantee I'll win in any tug of war against your Honda Civic.... Replacement bumpers anyone?

  • by $criptah ( 467422 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @10:10PM (#8276563) Homepage

    For those of you who are surprised, let me tell you have people have been tweaking chips for a good number of years. You can get aftermarket chips for pretty much any sports (and not so sports) car. However, the biggest gains are achieved only when you combine an upgraded chip with a number of performance parts such as headers, exhausts, turboes and superchargers. If you do not understand how cars work and have not done any performance tuning, you might be better off by going back to hacking your Linux box.

    First of all, there are no cheap power gains. Just replacing a chip will not turn your grocery-getter into a Porsche. Secondly, if you do get enough extra ponies, you will have to upgrade your suspension and brakes; otherwise, I will see you in a telephone pole around the corner. Finally, not every engine can hanle a lot of horsepower, that is, even if you do upgrade everything but leave the block in a stock condition, you will have a greater chance of blowing it.

    Normally, you would install any performance parts that you have and then tune the chip so it is optimized for your configuration. Is the chip worth the money by itself? Unless your car has forced induction it is; otherwise, it is a waste. Normally, you have to do a combination of things in order to get a significant increase in power. For example, Stage 1 upgrades include getting a new ECU and increasing pressure in your turbos, Stage 2 would require an additional part, usually an exhaust. Stage 3 may require changing your turbos or getting some upgrades for them; by the time you get to this point, you will notice the impact on your wallet. This varies from car to car, my knowledge is based on what I know about Nissan 300ZX and Subaru WRX.

    If you do not have turbos or a blower, there is nothing much your chip can do, but void the warranty.

    Also, when you get the stats, make sure that you understand them correctly. Ten extra horses to the flywheel are not equal to the ten extra horses to the wheels. If you are still nutty about all this, take a look what you can do to Subaru WRX, Audi (turboed models) and Corvettes. The latter do not have forced induction but are proven to be very nice when it comes to updated ECUs along with some performance parts. P.S.: Yeah, if you feel like replying back to me and telling that your Honda does wonders with upgraded chips and how it can beat anything on the road. Do not bother, please. I have been there and done that.

  • by sbaker ( 47485 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @10:19PM (#8276604) Homepage
    Let me tell you a true story:

    The 2002 MINI Cooper S (a **GREAT** car BTW) was delivered with Engine management (ECU) software V1.3.0. It worked fine.

    The 2003 MINI Cooper S was delivered with ECU software V1.3.2. We believe the changes were to accomodate the Diesel version of the MINI that was due to appear in Europe - but there may have been other changes too.

    v1.3.2 worked well - EXCEPT when the high ambient temperatures of a Texas summer combined with 'Reformulated Gasoline' (not sold in all US States - and not seen in Europe). With that combination of conditions, the car would roll forwards 10 feet and stall if you accellerated moderatly hard from a standing start. This came to be known as 'the stumbles'. When it strikes, it can actually be quite dangerous because you could in all likelyhood be stalled out right in front of an oncoming vehicle.

    Both ECU electronics and engine mechanics are IDENTICAL between the 2002 and 2003 models - so this had to be a software bug.

    It took a LONG time to figure out why some cars were stumbling. The owners' clubs first noticed that only 2003 cars did it - then we discovered this was only happening in the summer - and only in Texas and (IIRC) Florida - but then we heard that it wasn't happening in New Mexico. So we initially ruled out the 'high temperature' theory. However, New Mexico doesn't have reformulated gas.

    So when we realised that reformulated Gas is sold in Texas and Florida - but not in New Mexico, we thought that might be the issue...but then we found that it didn't happen in New York (reformulated gas - but no high temperatures).

    The whole thing was also confused by the fact that the MINI's ECU has adaptive software. When we had a few days of cool temperatures, the problem DIDN'T go away - and you had to run three tankfuls of non-reformulated gas through the car before the ECU would un-learn the stumble.

    It's a tribute to the 'community' spirit of MINI owners (and lots of long threads on several mailing lists) that we ever figured out WTF was happening to our cars at all.

    It took six months to pursuade BMW/MINI that there was truly a problem (by which time temperatures had dropped and we couldn't reproduce the problem) - and another 6 months for them to fix it and get a software upgrade out.

    Meanwhile, the 2002 MINI's were still running V1.3.0 just fine in all temperatures and all gasoline types - and 2003 MINI's were stumbling all over the place.

    Owners of 2003 machines were begging the dealerships to downgrade their cars back to the 2002 code - but dealerships were either unable or unwilling to do that - we're still not quite sure why - but it's likely that the security system in the MINI's ECU somehow prevents that.

    This is a CLASSIC case where we'd have *killed* to have an OpenSource solution so we could fix the problem ourselves...either by simply reprogramming our 2003 cars with 2002 software (kindly donated by a 2002 owner)...or by doing a 'diff' and figuring out what was actually wrong.

    Even without the source code, it would have been possible to do a binary dump from one car to another - but for the fact that these ECU's are protected by a barrage of 'challenge/response' tests (the details of which are a closely guarded secret). If your laptop fails to provide the correct response to the challenge, the car literally shuts down all software functions for THREE HOURS!! This effectively foils any effort to do a trial-and-error test to reverse-engineer the challenge/response system.

    So - whilst it MIGHT be dangerous to allow people to randomly hack their cars, there are also dangers in preventing them from doing so.
    • by sbaker ( 47485 ) on Saturday February 14, 2004 @02:07AM (#8277764) Homepage
      There is a fixed ECU revision out there (Variously known as v1.3.6, v3.6 and v36). If your car is an '03, your dealer should be able to install the new software in about 20 minutes under warranty.

      I did slightly 'abbreviate' the full details for the sake of brevity - in fact, early '03 model year cars from late 2002 or manufactured in Jan/Feb of 2003 were still using the older software and are stumble-free. Also, before the stumble was discovered, many dealerships upgraded cars with the older software to the 1.3.2 and 1.3.3 versions and these guys started to suffer when they'd been working OK beforehand. One reason for doing that was a minor cold-starting problem in non-supercharged MINI Coopers - and also to fix some shift-pattern problem in the CVT MINI Coopers.

      So, you DO see '02 cars *with* the stumble problem and there are also '03 cars that don't suffer from it at all (mine is an '03 model built in October 2002 - and I don't have the stumble because I didn't do the upgrade).

      The 'warble' you describe has also been well documented - it's more often called the 'yo-yo'. The jury is still out on whether it is fixed by the 1.3.6 software - some people claim it's fixed, others claim it's a little less noticable - other people say it's not there at all. It's a subtle problem though - some people don't notice the problem at all even though other people can clearly feel it in the exact same vehicle.

      Overall, there doesn't seem to be any reason NOT to upgrade to 1.3.6 - nobody has yet said it made matters worse.
  • by cluge ( 114877 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @10:23PM (#8276625) Homepage
    There are a lot of "open source" fuel injection computers out there (ignition too). If your really interested in making more power and hacking, join on to one of these projects. Perhaps someday someone will make an aftermarket odd fire ignition computer that I can program. In the mean time, check out these projects

    MegaSquirt Electronic Fuel Injection Computer []
    Electronic fuel injection 11 []
    PowerPC fuel injection []
  • by unstable23 ( 242201 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @10:27PM (#8276641)
    Like my car (a Saturn) which has a down-tuned engine in it. The version of the engine in the Saturn puts out about 180hp, but in the version in the Opel, it puts out 200 or so (thanks GM). Don't know why that is - insurance, emissions, who knows.

    Anyway, a company in Florida apparently imports the Opel chips and will put them in the engine in the Saturn - although I've not read a report on effects.

    To be honest, I wouldn't do it for several reasons, not least that the bank owns the car; it's still under warranty; its torque and gearing means it smokes most similar cars off the line anyway; and I'm not sure I'd want my family in a modded car!

    And beings as it costs $400 for that, plus whatever tweakery is extra, I'd rather drop the money into a bitchin' sound system.
  • by BeerSlurpy ( 185482 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @10:28PM (#8276648)
    First off, chipping cars generally doesnt produce big gains EXCEPT with factory turbo cars.

    This is because the pressure produced with the turbo is often controlled by a the computer, and altering the settings will raise the amount of air and fuel and thus the horsepower. Since modern turbos usually have fairly large air pumping capacity, the gains are quite large. A great example is the SRT4- the first 2 (warrantied!) factory upgrade stages are just a comptuer and injector swap which raises the boost. They massively overbuilt the drivetrain anticipating that people would engage in such acts.

    This usually produces big gains in power, but can cause problems in two cases:
    1) The turbo is very small compared to the engine and the turbo has to be overspun to produce a gain in power. This has been a big problem for the v6 twin turbo audi S4 and the 1.8T powered VW/Audi cars. They use extremely undersized turbos (to reduce lag) but this makes them very frail at high boost levels. This is why audi is going to a non-turbo V8 for the next version of the S4. Warranty claims are very hard to deny if the factory chip is swapped back in and the only damage is a pair of failed turbos. Its obvious what happened, but impossible to prove, especially when so many people are reporting these "random failures."
    2) The engine internals or drivetrain are too frail. This tends to be far less common (since these parts are usually overengineered), but it does happen, especially on AWD turbo cars with decent sized turbos, like the AWD DSMs from the mid-early 90s (eclipse/laser/etc). These accidents tend to be very expensive, so the dealerships are usually a bit more careful about springing for warranty work. Often the damning evidence is the massively upgraded clutch which sent the power to the transmission, or the poorly tuned engine which melted a piston top or a valve.

    On a car that isnt a factory turbo, all you can do is advance timing and adjust fuel delivery. Timing advance usually yields a little power but fuel delivery only yields power if the stock configuration is extremely rich (like on the Sentra Spec-V) or if the engine's volumetric efficiency is changed (cams/turbo/supercharger/etc added).

    This second use is usually what a computer change is used for on a n/a car.
  • by iminplaya ( 723125 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @10:30PM (#8276663) Journal
    for people who don't know which end of the screwdriver to hit.

    - Drive away in your own Plywood Fury, with two barrel carbonmaker and brand new gladiator...
  • Used to be EPROMS (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday February 13, 2004 @10:38PM (#8276701)
    This has been about as a phenomenonon for some while. Sometime in the early 90s I remember blowing a big run of EPROMS for a guy, well you know because I had an EPROM programmer and UV eraser which aren;t common it was a nice little job and I charged per device rate for copying them. I knew he was selling them, but like a dutiful hacker I didn't initially ask what they were (assuming pirate games ROMs). However each
    of the masters had a sticker with the model of a car (newest Fords and Audis I vaguely recall).
    Well when I did finally mention it, that's what they were... souped-up firmware replacements for the boy racers. Glad to see this art is still alive.
  • by bpiltz ( 460092 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @11:23PM (#8276964)
    By tweaking fuel/air mixtures and ignition timing, the two main adjustable performance variables without removing or replacing parts, you are also drastically changing combustion byproducts. The ability of vehicles to meet emissions standards is largely dependent on the fine tuning the engine computer provides. The computer monitors exhaust gas composition, intake air volume, engine temp, air temp, throttle position, RPM, barometric pressure, etc. and mixes the optimum fuel/air ratio to minimize emissions for a given performance curve. You aren't just voiding the warranty by tweaking, you are violating federal air quality laws. Some don't care about the air they breath, but they might care about dying. (See next point)

    A finer point is the consideration of incomplete combustion. There is an inverse relationship between performance and fuel efficiency. Where does all that extra fuel go to eak out that last bit of horsepower? It exits the combustion chamber in the form of partially combusted hydrocarbons (HC's) and CO. It takes too long to burn fuel completely to CO2 and H20 in a high performance envelope, so it is wasted and accounted as the cost of performance. Normally the HC's and CO exit the exhaust into the air in a off-street high performance vehicle. In a street production vehicle there is a catalytic converter between the exhaust manifold and the air. It is designed to clean up any residual uncombusted byproducts, normally a small % and runs around 1000-1500 degrees in temp, but it has heat shielding/insulation to protect the vehicle. If you changed the exhaust, through tweaking for performance, to release a higher percentage of HC's and CO, the catalytic converter will convert it to CO2 and H20. The problem is that there is much more combustion to complete and the cat's temp will rise drastically. Then your car catches on fire.

    You might think this is a rare event, but it happens occasionally when engines are poorly tuned or leaking oil fumes in the exhaust and aren't checked out for emissions. Part of an emissions test involves analyzing exhaust gases prior to entering the cat. Converters are so efficient at finishing combustion that they can mask oil burning and overly rich mixtures.

    I have seen several cars burn up this way. The funniest/most ironic happened to a police car. The police department was pulling strings with the emissions department and getting rubber stamped emissions stickers for their cruiser fleet without actually running the tests. One hot summer day a cruiser melted by the side of the road and started a moderate grass fire. It was determined through mechanic logs that the car had been using much more oil recently, but nothing was done to figure out why - just kept adding oil. All that oil was burning in the cat and eventually the heat shielding burned through and the car ignited.

    Just like overclocking, you gotta do something about the excess heat. The tweakers might want to remove the cat (a violation of federal law) or keep a fire extinguisher in the car and the fire department on speed dial.

    I used to turn wrenches for a living before going to med school.

  • by my02wrxsti ( 706498 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @11:38PM (#8277047)
    There are significant limitations on what can be achieved by ECU modification alone. Part of the reason why the guy in the article got such a huge performance boost was that the car was turbocharged in the first place. In all likelihood, most of the improvement came from an increase in boost.

    In most modern normally aspirated vehicles ECU modifications do very little (we are talking 10% max) to performance unless the volumetric efficiency of the car is altered first by improving breathing (air filter, intake manifold, throttle body, inlet cam etc), improved exhaust (extractors, free flowing exhaust) or increasing the engine's ability to rev (blueprinting, valve train etc etc). Once these things have been done it is often vital that ECU mods are done to ensure that air/fuel mixtures remain with safe range (not too lean for petrol engines and not to rich for diesels).

    On the flip side we have the behaviour of the stock ECU on many of the more sophisticated modern vehicles: particularly those that have low emissions status. Often traditional mods will not improve performance at all or only for a little while. For example, before the Subaru Impreza WRX was released in the US, a typical first modification was turbo or cat back exhaust. This had the effect of improving flow and also increased boost because the boost control was open loop (no feedback). The new GDB Impreza WRX is no where near as easy to modify. The ECU has closed loop control and will also retard timing to bring power down to stock levels. Another vehicle that does something similar are the LS1 V8 equipped Holden Commodores that we have here in Australia (the four door equivalent of the new Pontiac GTO). These use some form of torque modelling such that any modification will give a short performance boost but within days the ECU will bring torque back to stock levels.

    In short, ECU modification is generally something that is done at the same time as other, more physical modifications.

  • by FuegoFuerte ( 247200 ) on Friday February 13, 2004 @11:50PM (#8277111)
    Garage operators across the country say they are seeing more cars with burned-out engines, partly because reprogrammed chips sometimes supply too much fuel and allow turbo pressure to exceed recommended limits.

    I suppose this could make sense with a turbo engine (more gas AND more air), but more gas by itself will just cause horrible emissions and, if anything, a low operating temp. A rich mixture does not fully burn, and indeed ends up cooling the engine some. A lean mixture will burn up an engine. A rich mixture will just smell bad and piss off the EPA.

    (Perhaps inevitably, the hacker culture has also produced automotive pirates who buy legitimate chips from makers then copy the programming onto blank chips, selling the results at sharp discounts.)

    Need I say anything? "Hacker culture" != "Pirate". Grr.

    Partly to combat hackers, many carmakers are using encrypted chips in new models or, like Toyota, have done away with removable memory chips altogether. That has the e-mechanics shifting strategies, either by downloading new software directly into the computer's hard drive...

    Hard Drive? In my car? From the factory? Think not.

  • by FearUncertaintyDoubt ( 578295 ) on Saturday February 14, 2004 @02:44AM (#8277932)
    I put some speed holes in the hood. They make the car go faster.
  • Two tanks ? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Molina the Bofh ( 99621 ) on Saturday February 14, 2004 @02:48AM (#8277953) Homepage
    Does it mean that, in order to reach the maximal level of geekness, I will have to get an extra tank, full of liquid nitrogen for my overclocked car ?

    Cool. So my next car will have these 2 tanks, be overclocked, play mp3's / have a GPS system [], and look cool []. Now all I need is a Mr. Fusion unit []. But it's still 2004 and I hadn't invented it yet.
  • by Chicane-UK ( 455253 ) <> on Saturday February 14, 2004 @06:08AM (#8278603) Homepage
    You might have seen people selling on eBay a miracle chip which can unleash around 20BHP from your engine, and yet this wonder chip only costs like $5.

    Its basically a resistor you are buying, and you are expected to solder it into your ECU, tricking the car into thinking its running in cold start mode the whole time.. so more fuel is injected into the engine hence making it a little more powerful.

    But obviously you don't want to be doing it.. if you are going to get your car chipped do it at a garage who run your car on a rolling road and work out a custom map for you. $500 or so for a rechip would be nothing compared to the damage that one of those $5 resistors would do over time.
  • KIT (Score:5, Funny)

    by FrostedWheat ( 172733 ) on Saturday February 14, 2004 @07:26AM (#8278778)
    Oh oh I seen this episode ... this is where they made Kit evil by putting an Atari 2600 cartridge into his car stereo!

Did you hear that two rabbits escaped from the zoo and so far they have only recaptured 116 of them?