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The ECU in a modern vehicle makes it possible to control many aspects of the engine's operation, such as spark timing and fuel injection. The ECU may also control electronic throttle control (drive-by-wire), valve timing, boost control (in turbocharged engines), ABS, the automatic transmission, speed governor (if equipped), and the electronic stability control system.

Performance increases are achieved by adjusting the ignition timing advance. Higher timing may result in higher performance. However, to cope with advanced timing, one must run high-octane petrol to avoid pre-ignition detonation or pinging. Manufacturers design for a specific timing and this may limit performance accordingly.

In addition, changing fuel maps to coincide with the stoichiometric ratio for fuel combustion may also achieve performance increases. Most manufacturers tune for optimum emissions and fuel economy purposes which often limit performance.

Cars with a turbo fitted can have the requested and allowable boost levels raised, these applications usually have the most effect if the turbo fitted is a low pressure turbo which leaves the most room for improvement.

Another reason to change the ECU map is if there are engine, intake, or exhaust modifications to the car. These "bolt-on" modifications alter the way that the engine flows, often causing the air to fuel ratio to change. Without re-mapping the fuel tables, some of the performance gains from the modifications may not be achieved.

A poorly tuned ECU can result in decreased performance, driveability, and may even cause engine damage.

The most common way to 'upgrade' the ECU is using an OBD Flash tool. These devices plug into the diagnostic port although in some cases the reprogramming is done directly on the circuit board. Maps are supplied by expert tuners like Revo and Oscarli.

An alternative to modifying the on-board chip is adding an external device, often known as a tuning box e.g. Steinbauer. The abilities of the external devices generally reflect on-board chip modifications, with the advantage that they can be easily removed to restore the vehicle to standard. Adding an external tuning box is generally only possible on modern engines with external management ports.

(With thanks to Wikipedia for some of the content)