When making modifications to the engine in becomes necessary to also recalibrate the engine controller. To condense how all this works we need to understand that an engine is an air pump. Drawing air in from the atmosphere through the throttle body, dividing it into each cylinder and then adding the appropriate mass of fuel to hit a target ratio. Because the controller is only as smart as the information it is provided; it’s imperative that the calibration redefine the engines new airflow. The two major processes are called the Speed Density Model and the MAF Model. Below further defines how these functions work.
Speed Density (used on all LS and LT Controllers)
Speed Density systems accept input from sensors that measure engine speed (in rpm) and load (manifold vacuum in kPa), then the computer calculates airflow requirements by referring to a preprogrammed lookup table, a map of thousands of values that equates to the engine’s volumetric efficiency (VE) under varying conditions of throttle position and engine speed. Engine rpm is provided via a tach signal, while vacuum is transmitted via an intake manifold-mounted Manifold Air Pressure (MAP) sensor. Since air density changes with air temperature, an intake manifold-mounted sensor is also used.
Production-based Speed Density computers also utilize an oxygen (O2) sensor mounted in the exhaust tract. The computer looks at the air/fuel ratio from the O2 sensor and corrects the fuel delivery for any errors. This helps compensate for wear and tear and production variables. Other sensors on a typical Speed Density system usually include an idle-air control motor to help regulate idle speed, a throttle-position sensor that transmits the percentage of throttle opening, a coolant-temperature sensor, and a knock sensor as a final fail-safe that hears detonation so the computer can retard timing as needed.
Because a Speed Density system still has no sensors that directly measure engine airflow, all the fuel mapping points must be preprogrammed, so any significant change to the engine that alters its VE requires reprogramming the computer. This would include but not limited to; camshaft, cylinder, supercharging and intake manifolds.
Mass Flow (used on all LS and LT Controllers)
By contrast, Mass Air Flow (MAF) systems use a sensor mounted in front of the throttle body that directly measures the amount of air inducted into the engine. The most common type of mass-flow sensor is the hot wire design: Air flows past a heated wire that’s part of a circuit that measures electrical current. Current flowing through the wire heats it to a temperature that is always held above the inlet air temperature by a fixed amount. Air flowing across the wire draws away some of the heat, so an increase in current flow is required to maintain its fixed temperature. The amount of current needed to heat the wire is proportional to the mass of air flowing across the wire. The mass-air meter also includes a temperature sensor that provides a correction for intake air temperature so the output signal is not affected by it.
The MAF sensor’s circuitry converts the current reading into a voltage signal for the computer, which in turn equates the voltage value to mass flow. Typical MAF systems also use additional sensors similar to those found in Speed Density systems. Once the electronic control module (ECM) knows the amount of air entering the engine, it looks at these other sensors to determine the engine’s current state of operation (idle, acceleration, cruise, deceleration, operating temperature, and so on), then refers to an electronic map to find the appropriate air/fuel ratio and select the fuel-injector pulse width required to match the input signals.
MAF systems are much more flexible in their ability to compensate for engine changes since they actually measure airflow instead of computing it based on preprogrammed assumptions. They are self-compensating for most reasonable upgrades, as well as extremely accurate under low-speed, part-throttle operation. On the other hand, the MAF meter, mounted as it is ahead of the throttle-body, can become an airflow restriction on high-horsepower engines. On nonstock engine retrofits or EFI conversions on engines never produced with fuel injection, it may be hard to package an MAF meter within the confines of the engine bay and available intake manifold configurations. If you change your cold air intake, install a supercharger or anything that effects the location of the MAF, a calibration is required!
Unlike many other models of cars the GM systems use BOTH Speed Density and MAF as a blended system. Certain criteria determines the blend point. This is way a proper calibration takes more then two wide open throttle pulls to get the job done!