The basics of electronic controls in your vehicle

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Electronic Control Unit

While cars are still somewhat mechanical, ECUs like this one do most of the work. Image from Flickr.

In the late 1970s, General Motors started putting microprocessor-based controls in its vehicles. Since then, electronic control units have become the biggest source of innovation and cost in vehicles. With the use of electronic control units expected to do nothing but grow, it is important to understand what exactly they do and how secure they may or may not be.

The Basics of an Electronic Control Unit

An electronic control unit, usually called ECU, is a microprocessor implanted in a vehicle. Each ECU is usually intended for a single purpose. For example, an ECU controls the anti-lock brakes on a vehicle, while a separate ECU controls the lights or radio volume. Electronic control units within a vehicle are networked with each other and with sensors that provide them with raw data. Each electronic control unit is programmed with as much as 50,000 lines of code that tell it what to do with the raw data it gets.

Benefits from an ECU

Electronic controls in vehicles are usually included for one of three reasons – to make something more consistent, more efficient or easier to use. An electronic control sensor is used to help your fuel injectors make better use of the fuel your engine burns. Electronic control sensors also help airbags deploy at the right time and with the right force. Electronic control sensors are also what allow hybrid vehicles to turn the proper parts of the engine on and off at the right time.

Costs of an Electronic Control Unit

The electronics of a vehicle contribute to as much as 70 percent of the development time of a new car. It isn’t surprising, then, the that electronics in a car also represent 15 to 40 percent of the cost of a vehicle. On one premium vehicle, such as a BMW, software development can easily run into the billions of dollars. There is also a danger with electronic control units; recent studies have found that they are very susceptible to hacking. In the end, the only reliable way to opt-out of an electronic control system-controlled vehicle is to get a car built before the 1970s and do your best to keep it running.

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