‘ECU’ is a Three Letter Answer for all the Innovative Features in Your Car: Know How the Story Unfolded

‘ECU’ is a Three Letter Answer for all the Innovative Features in Your Car: Know How the Story Unfolded

Automobiles were seen as mechanical machines until the introduction of Electronics in Automotive Industry.

Every component starting from engine to window, steering, brake was a mechanical component working on gears and principles of mechanics.

The mechanical systems had inherent limitations and limited accuracy, which not only caused undetected failures, but also pose life threats to the consumers.

These limitations meant that there was a lot of scope for innovation in automotive sector.

This eventually led to the widespread introduction of electronics across components and systems within an automobile.

In 1970, Automotive Electronic Control Units (ECUs)was introduced in the automotive industry and since then, it has played a fundamental role in evolution of Automobiles from being a completely mechanical to being an electronics dominant device.

Modern day cars have over hundred in-built or installed ECUs in them.

Luxury cars like BMW 7-series models have as many as 150 Automotive ECUs to control and regulate the functions of the car.

Understanding the Functional Difference between Mechanical and Electronics based control units:


Mechanical& Electronics control units

Source: Eaton

The automotive ECU can be subdivided into three major categories,

  • Power train Control Module
  • Body Control Unit
  • Chassis System.

Let us consider Engine control unit which is a part of the Power train Control Module (PCM).

In modern vehicles, the basic working principle of engine operation is still based on combustion, only difference is that the process is now controlled by the ECU.

The engine ECU controls the opening and closing of the input/output valve, by taking input from the accelerator of pedal of the vehicle.

The engine ECU is also responsible for the clockwork of the amount of fuel injection and spark ignition.

In this way, the Engine ECU results in accurate synchronization, rendering more power, efficiency and highly functional engines, to the vehicles.

In this way, ECU controlled vehicles are able to deliver higher efficiency as compared to mechanical automobiles.

Factors that led the Automotive OEMs’ to move from Mechanical to Electronic Control Units:

The paradigm shift of Automobiles from a mechanical machine to electronic system has paved the way for innovations like power steering, cruise control, infotainment, HUD, in-car connectivity and mobility.

In modern connected cars, Automotive ECUs along with LiDAR sensor technology are eventually making a self-driving autonomous car a reality.

So while in the hindsight, it is a no-brainer to conclude that the electronics in automotive has indeed led to favourable results.

But it would also be interesting to look at the factors that stood out as the factors driving this change in automotive industry
Automotive ECU
Source: Chip Estimate blog

  • Driver and pedestrian safety:

Mitigation of driver distraction to ensure safety for both drivers and pedestrians has always been the top priority for Automotive OEMs’ and Government Regulators.

Some of the OEMs’ like Volvo have also officially announced their ambitions to reduce the fatality rate due to vehicles to zero by 2020.

The automotive OEMs’ and Suppliers are able to walk the talk due to the capabilities of the electronics based control units within the vehicle.

Automotive ECUs along with image processing algorithms, sensors and camera support a number of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) like adaptive cruise control, driver drowsiness detection, lane departure warning, forward collision alert, pedestrian detection and more

This has been one of the major driving factors as any compromise with safety would have direct impact on the very existence of automobiles as the mode of transport.

  • Need for compliance with government regulations:

Government regulatory bodies are one of the key stakeholders of the automotive industry ecosystem

As an Automotive OEM and /or a Supplier, it is mandatory to comply with such region specific regulations and norms pertaining to emissions, energy consumption, safety and emergency responses and more

Implementing such mandates without the use of Electronic Control Units and software algorithms would have been a mission impossible.

On the other end, due to emergence of electronic based automation and connectivity with road infrastructure, the regulators are also able to keep the malpractices in check and respond in a better way, to emergency situations.

For an instance, to keep in check the frequency of road accidents due to fleet trucks and also to ensure adherence to the HOS (hours of service) policy, the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has issued an ELD mandate.

All the fleet companies have to comply with the mandate by December 2017 by installing Electronic Logging Device (ELD) in their trucks.

  • Car or a mobile device on wheels :

In the last decade, since the advent of mobile phones, it became pertinent for car-makers to introduce connectivity and more electronics within the car

The generation obsessed with smart devices, web connectivity, ease of navigation, social media and consumption of information on the go, meant that car had to slowly transform into a consumer electronics device.

Global OEMs’ and Suppliers have been able to respond to such a change in customer preference by allowing the explosion of electronics to bolster in-car mobility and connectivity.

Investments in R&D and in-vehicle infrastructure ensured that ECUs’ and in-vehicle networks (FlexRay BUS) support multimedia systems like Infotainment and HUD (Head-up Display)

These along with Telematics applications have opened up a Pandora box of new revenue opportunities for OEMs’, through value-add after-sales service and remote diagnostics and maintenance support

Automotive Electronics timeline: The journey from Cadillac to Tesla

Automotive Electronics Bar graph

Numbers speak louder than words! And this graph (by ‘statista) does all the justice to the influence of electronics in Automotive.

It also offers a lot of insights regarding the journey of automotive electronics from 1950 to 2030.

What we see here is the cost share of automotive ECU with respect to the overall cost of the car from 1950 to 2030.

From the graph above, it is very evident that the presence of electronics in cars did not grow overnight.

It took 3 decades of technology innovations, persistent R&D in automotive product development along with other driving factors, when finally electronics contributed 10% to overall cost in 1980s’.

To be more specific the introduction of Airbags Control Unit in 1970s and the demand for fuel efficient cars, also contributed to the rapid growth of electronics during 1970-1980

1990-2010 can be considered as the best growth years for automotive electronics.

Automotive OEMs’ like Toyota, Ford and Honda introduced car models with GPS, multimedia (DVD) players, advanced diagnostics systems, back-up sensor and cameras and driver assistance systems like pre-collision safety systems,and OnStar module(General motors car models).

With advanced technologies like LiDAR sensor based self-driving cars, Land Rover’s Invisible Car and Toyota’s Hovering car, it is anticipated that, by 2030 Automotive electronics will contribute 50% of the total car cost

It is no brainer that Automotive Electronics is having a dream-run in recent years.

And the way this story has unfolded, all this seems destined to happen not only for better driving experience but also for the safer roads of the world!


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