ECU Components in Automobiles

ECU Components and Engine Controls

Before today’s emission laws, you could build a car engine with no microprocessors. However, we now have stricter emissions laws, so sophisticated controlling mechanisms (ECU Components and Engine Controls) were necessary to control the air/fuel mixture in order for the catalytic converter to reduce the pollution from our exhaust. (Look at How Catalytic Converters Work for further explanation.)

The engine control unit ECU is the most powerful computer on most cars. And it needs to be because controlling the engine is the most processor-intensive part of your car. The ECU uses closed-loop control, a method of control that monitors the system outputs in order to control the inputs going into the system — in this way, it manages the emissions and fuel economy of the engine (as well as a host of other things). Collecting data from several different sensors at once, the ECU keeps track of the coolant temperature to the amount of oxygen in the exhaust. With this data, it performs almost instant calculations, like looking up values in tables, calculating the answers of equations for the best spark timing and figuring out when and how long the fuel injector will be open. All of this technical power is to ensure low emissions and improve fuel economy.

Check out How Fuel Injection Systems Work for more information on ECUs and what they do.

ECU Components and Engine Controls

The tiny pins on this connector connect to sensors and control devices throughout the car.

A typical ECU today may have a 32-bit, 40-MHz processor in it. This probably sounds slow compared to the processor you have in your PC, but keep in mind that the processor in your vehicle is running much less code than the one in your PC. The code in your usual ECU takes up less than one megabyte (1 MB) of memory. By comparison, you likely have more than two gigabytes (2 GB) of programs and software, which is 2,000 times more than what is in the ECU.

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