The Real Deal! - August - 2023

Programming in 2023

If you’re an experienced reprograming tech or new to it, there’re a lot of changes to the programming scene. Changes in OEM software, OEM purchasing options and procedures, and hardware requirements have occurred over the last couple of years. As with any technology, as it progresses, so does the hardware and tools needed to run it. One universal truth about computer systems is that if components get more powerful, a programmer will take advantage of that. If you’re old like me, you know of such quotes as “No one would need more than 640KB of memory” or “It’s the last scan tool you’ll ever need.” If you remember those quotes, then you also know that the future is unpredictable (at least in the far future). The near future, on the other hand, we can prepare for.

Starting Out

For those that are considering getting into reprogramming, there are three questions always asked. How much, what do I need, and what happens when it goes wrong? How much? Let’s break this down into two groups; hardware and software. Hardware includes a PC, a J-2534 programmer, a battery maintainer, and internet access. We’ll start with the PC requirements. Each manufacturer has minimum hardware specs for Windows-based PCs to run their software. Many manufacturers have a rather modest hardware requirement, but a few have much more restrictive requirements. Those few manufacturers are making some of the most common vehicles to come to your shop, Detroit’s Big 3, Chrysler (Stellantis), Ford, and GM. These manufacturers require Windows 10, with Windows 10 Professional required or recommended by many. The table in Figure one shows the hardware requirement for many manufacturers and is organized so that the stricter requirements are at the top. The PC hardware list will always be downwards compatible. If you have a system at the top, then you can meet the requirements of anything below it. But if your computer is mid-table, it may not run the software smoothly or error-free of any manufacturer higher on the list.

If you’re already programming or have in the past, you may notice the change in GM’s requirements (as of Feb 2023), both in RAM (up from 8GB to 16GB) and CPU (Intel i3/5/7 7th gen or newer). This doesn’t mean your current 8GB, older CPU PC suddenly stopped working overnight, the computer you may have been using last year will continue to work, but in the upcoming years, you may experience a noticeable change in speed. It’s also worth noting that part of the GM requirements has more to do with the other programs in the software suite than just the Service Programming System (SPS2).

If you’re just starting to reprogram, adhering to the latest requirements would ensure your computer will work favorably in the next three or four years. For those already programming, if your pc runs the software you use quickly and without errors, continue using that hardware but watch for behavior changes after programming software updates.

Operating Systems (OS)

All OEM programming software runs on Windows, and all the current releases run on Windows 10 or Windows 10 Professional. Four OEMs require Win 10 Professional: Acura/Honda, BMW, Ford & GM. If you’re working on these brands, get the Professional version of Windows. With the memory requirements, getting the 64-bit version of these OSs is advisable, which will allow the full use of the available RAM. Windows 11 is not supported as the software has not been tested thoroughly as of yet. If you have a Windows 11 PC, you can have Windows 10 Professional installed on it either at purchase or afterward. Remember to save any files you have on that computer, as installing a new OS will delete everything on that drive.

There are several CPU manufacturers: Intel, AMD, and ARM are the larger brands. However, some of these OEMs specifically call for using Intel models. The software may run on another CPU brand, but if you have problems during programming and have to call that OEM’s support number, they may decline or cut short the troubleshooting once they find the hardware doesn’t meet the requirements.

So what PC should you get? If you’re going to program GM vehicles, you need the top tier of the recommended requirements. A Windows 10 Professional laptop with an Intel core I3, i5, or i7 CPU, 16 GB of RAM, and 500GB of storage. The screen size is up to you. Most manufacturers have no requirements. Some have a minimum screen resolution of 1024×768; however, most PC laptops with a screen size of 12.4” or larger will meet or exceed this requirement. I have used several 15” laptops, and there were times that it was difficult to use inside of a car, especially with the owner’s personal belongings scattered about. You are not required to be inside the vehicle during programming, but it does make it easier to turn keys or push buttons. I would not want to go with anything larger than a 15” screen size.

Now that we have the PC out of the way, what about the interface device: the J2534 tool? First, what is J2534? J2534 is an SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers)-designed standard interface to meet the EPA-mandated regulations for vehicle ECU reprogramming. It allows us in the Independent Aftermarket to reprogram ECUs without requiring an OEM-specific tool. There are two versions of J2534-1 and -2. J2534-1 meets the requirements for programming emission-related ECUs: the PCM/ECM, TCM, and Throttle control module. It may also program non-emission modules, BCM, ABS, or Steering, but it is manufacture-dependent. J2534-2 will also program emissionbased modules as well as non-emissionr-elated modules. This would include BCM, ABS, SIR (airbag), seat and door modules, and many others. As a transmission- only shop, you may not find the need to program an airbag module or door module. However, shops that replace those modules will need someone to program their new module. And if you have the time, you can offset your hardware investment by offering this service. Most currently offered tools meet the J2534-2 standard, making life easier when replacing a BCM (because it can’t read the Electronic Shift Module data or an ABS module with missing or incorrect wheel speed data, and the transmission won’t shift).

So which tool to buy? It’s not as simple as saying get the most powerful one you can afford. The J2534 standard is a reference design. Certain aspects are common to all tool manufacturers, while some areas are left to the tool manufacturer (such as how the tool will interface with the PC). Instead, we can only go by what tools the OEMs have certified or validated to work with their software. This is not saying any tool not on the OEM’s list won’t work; it just hasn’t been tested by that OEM. If OEM support is needed using a device that has not been validated may result in a referral to the tool manufacturer. This is where tool support becomes very important. A tool manufacturer or seller offering a technical assistant phone number and email can make a frustrating car problem so much easier. But if the support is an email address that is slow to respond to your problem, your OEM subscription may time out before you get an answer. That said, as these tools have to comply with an SAE standard, most of them will have no problems with day-to-day usage. It’s a rare case that may require a call to support to find an answer.

I can’t tell you what tool to buy; I can only show you what tools have been tested or validated by the OEMs. Please keep in mind the data obtained in this chart is what I could find that was publicly available by the following manufacturers. Some list no validated tools other than their own factory-approved tool but will say that J2534-compliant tools will work with their software.

As the table in Figure two shows, the tool with the highest number of OEM validations is the Drew Tech CarDaq Plus, followed by Bosch’s Mastertech VCI. One note on the Snap-On Pass Thru Pro IV is that even though it only has two OEMs validating it, it is a Drewtech CarDaq Plus in a Snap-On red case. This means Snap-On Diagnostics will support you, but you will install Drew Technologies firmware, drivers, and their J2534 toolbox. The toolbox provides OEM software links, software launchers, instructions on performing different procedures, and an OBD II generic tool that can read codes, part numbers, and VIN.

Once a computer and J2534 tool is purchased, your first step is to update Windows, reboot and check for updates again. It’s not uncommon for Windows to update two or three boot cycles, as some updates require others to be installed and booted before installing newer ones. Then install your tool’s drivers and software per the manufacturer’s instructions. Depending on the driver or software, the tool may need to be powered up to be recognized. You can simply plug the DLC connector into any vehicle’s DLC connector to power up the tool. Some tools have a DC jack for powering the tool, but it may be a separate purchase for that adaptor. After updating the computer and installing the drivers and software, we’re already to reprogram, right? Almost.

One very important fact about reprogramming or re-flashing automotive computers, there is no standard time it will take. While most updates will take 5-10 minutes, the time from start to finish may take significantly longer. This means the battery may go from fully charged to critical low before the reprogramming completes. While manufacturers have improved protecting computers from program failure due to voltage loss or connection interruption, there’s always a chance of failure and the preverbal “Bricking.” When this happens, the computer can no longer be recovered or salvaged, at least not by most shops. So, we need to keep power up on the vehicle for protection. A bare minimum is to add in a second battery. A jump box can also increase the time available to program. This assumes that both the vehicle and jump box batteries are in good condition. If either is old and has low capacity, then the risk of low voltage will not be adverted.

The next choice is to get a Battery Maintainer or Flashing Power Supply. This is a device that looks like a battery charger, hooks up like a battery charger but instead puts out a filtered 14.4 volts that will keep system voltage constant. That offers the best possible condition for reprogramming a computer. Under no condition should a conventional battery charger be used. It induces a pulsing wave that can cause incomplete writes to the module, which means the possibility of bricking the module.

Once you have your equipment, you are ready to reprogram modules and reset certain features that were unavailable through a scan tool. When I started programming, I knew it would open opportunities for other shops to bring their vehicles for reprogramming. What I didn’t realize was how much would come from body shops because of the airbag module (requiring replacement after airbag deployment). These little programming jobs can quickly help recover the initial cost of hardware. These jobs opened up a relationship with the other shops that often ended up with transmission jobs coming directly from them or referred by them.

For programming procedures, you can find information on ATRA’s Tech Support Center and our Virtual Training Solution pages, accessible with your ATRA membership at