COBB Tuning Insider – Rob Irish, BMW Extraordinaire

Step 1: Plug the AccessPORT in.
Step 2: Wait 20 minutes.
Step 3: Smash the gas pedal and feel your extra horsepower.

Just like an iPod, the AccessPORT seems so simple. But going from a cold metal Engine Control Unit sitting on your desk to the sleek plug and play AccessPORT takes more than just a few button clicks. A COBB Tuning Reverse Engineer spends months finding a way to talk to the ECU. Then, Rob spends more months discovering what each section of code controls, and how it interacts with the other sections of code. And only then can Irish start tuning an actual car. That long process is what motivates COBB Tuning Reverse Engineer Rob Irish to wake up every morning.

If you have a BMW and you’ve spent anytime at all on E90post or our COBB Forums, then you know Rob@COBB. Rob, better known by his last name Irish, is a reverse engineer and BMW Expert Group lead at COBB Tuning HQ in Austin, TX. Between a few dyno sessions and some ECU hacking, I was able to sit down with Rob for a few questions.


Where are you from and how did you learn about COBB Tuning?

I am originally from outside Boulder, CO: the land of all-wheel-drive Subarus and Audis. In 2005, I had the itch modify my Subaru STi which naturally led me to COBB Tuning’s products. One night while drooling over my next modification, I ran across an embedded software engineering position at COBB in Salt Lake City. After emailing my resume and a cover letter, the next thing I knew was myself, my dog, my car, and everything I owned were loaded up in a moving truck and headed to SLC for a new job.

You’ve done well at some recent SCCA Autocross events! How did you get in to racing?

Thanks! Some of my recent finishes are:

1st Place 2011 Lincoln ProSolo
1st Place 2011 Lincoln National Tour
1st Place 2011 Colorado ProSolo
2nd Place 2011 ProSolo Finale

I have had a competitive spirit for as long as I can remember. Being a car nut and competitive, I needed some kind of outlet for speed other than the street. I turned to autocross and track days so I could satisfy my need for speed while still being allowed to keep my license.

How did the BMW group start at COBB Tuning?

The BMW group grew as the project grew, originally starting with me. I don’t know if I had even started at COBB when I started talking to Trey about hacking into the European cars. Finally, around 2008, I was given the green light to tackle the MINI N14 and BMW N54. Shortly before the release of the BMW AP it became clear I could no longer be the sole member of the team. From there we have added the people that make the BMW AP, its service, and support what is today. I could not have made the product what it is without my team.

How do you go from knowing nothing about an ECU to being able to tune the car?

Generally, the first step is to analyze what we do know about the ECU: Is there information we already know? Are the potential weaknesses we can easily find? Then, just follow the bread crumbs from there. You have to try several different avenues and most of the time it seems like you are beating your head against a wall. There’s no real “how-to”; it takes an open mind with some out of the box thinking. The most rewarding part is breaking through those obstacles and then being able to apply that knowledge to making cars faster!


What was the biggest hurdle to providing BMW N54 AccessPORT support?

You seriously only want me to pick one hurdle?!? The most difficult hurdle has been wrapping my brain around all of the intricate systems in the ECU and how they interact with each other. That is still something we tackle every day! All the systems in the ECU (timing, fuel, load, boost, VANOS, etc.) all seem to have a hand in each others pot. It requires a delicate balance to keep all of these systems happy at the same time under varying driving conditions. I spent countless time and energy trying to understand why changing one system would affect a seemingly unrelated different system. Nothing in the BMW ECU family has been quick or easy to implement, but the reward has always been worth the pain.

What percentage of time do you spend on the dyno versus on the computer hacking?

In the beginning of a project, it’s pretty much 100% hacking. As the project progresses, our focus slowly changes to research and development tuning on the dyno. During that process, we reverse engineer the ECU logic to understand how the ECU controls the mechanics of the motor.

BMW has turbo on the mind for the future! What do you love about the current 335i shop car and which one are you most excited to get your hands on?

Our 2009 335i shop car has so many great features from the looks to its day-to- day driveability. For me, torque is the key to a great daily-driver and this car has effortless passing power in every gear. But for the future, I can’t wait to get my hands on the new turbo ///M cars in the pipe.

What are you doing when not racing or hacking ECUs?

Well I love to run and mountain bike, but mostly that’s a cover for being a foodie and beer snob. My fiancee and I both love good food and drink.


6 responses to “COBB Tuning Insider – Rob Irish, BMW Extraordinaire”

  1. GREAT last name: mine as well. Do you know if Cobb will strech out to NA tuning? I’m building a NA 89 325is, with a stroker M20 2.7i six cylinder, lots of porting and bigger cam (284+) and Miller Performance MAF+Intake+WAR Chip isn’t maximizing air/fuel mixtures well. I’ve had an excellent dynoshop (DynoSpot in San Jose, CA) but we’re working around tuning issues. Sorry to bother you, but I was jamming through the NASIOC site and considering a modded Subie WRX build. Good to see your racing progress. Walter Irish

    • We don’t have any plans for NA BMW tuning right now, but it does sound like a pretty awesome project! Sorry we couldn’t help you out.


  2. Does your team have any plans to tackle the N55 motor? I’ve had the Cobb AP for my ’08 135i and the APv2 for my ’08 STI. I’ve never been disappointed with the work you all do and I’m really hoping that I can flash my newer ’11 135i with a Cobb soon!

  3. I like the benefit of using the Accessport as an onboard diagnostic tool as well as another set of gauges. Do you know of anyway to utilize the split screen feature of the iDrive to port this information to the dash? Would be great to be able to look at the factory option and see the Accessport display.

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