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New cars are confusing. With all the computers, sensors, and gadgets, it may seem like there's some sort of magical witchcraft taking place under the hood. We're here to show you how modern automotive computer control systems work.
Back in the day, a good ol' carburetor was responsible for sending the appropriate amount of fuel into the cylinders. Today, that job belongs to the ECU.
If the heart of a car is its engine, then its brain must be the Engine Control Unit (ECU). Also known as a Powertrain Control Module (PCM), the ECU optimizes engine performance by using sensors to decide how to control certain actuators in an engine. A car’s ECU is primarily responsible for four tasks. Firstly, the ECU controls the fuel mixture. Secondly, the ECU controls idle speed. Thirdly, the ECU is responsible for ignition timing. Lastly, in some applications, the ECU controls valve timing.
Before we talk about how the ECU accomplishes its tasks, let's follow the path of a gasoline droplet that enters your gas tank. Times have changed since the Down the Gasoline Trail video, so it's time for an update. Initially, after a gas droplet enters your gas tank (which is now made of plastic), it gets sucked up by an electric fuel pump. The electric fuel pump usually comes in an in-tank module that consists of a pump, a filter, and a sending unit. The sending unit uses a voltage divider to tell your gas gauge how much fuel you have left in your tank. The pump sends the gasoline through a fuel filter, through hard fuel lines, and into a fuel rail.
A vacuum-powered fuel pressure regulator at the end of the fuel rail ensures that the fuel pressure in the rail remains constant relative to the intake pressure. For a gasoline engine, fuel pressure is usually on the order of 35-50 psi. Fuel injectors connect to the rail, but their valves remain closed until the ECU decides to send fuel into the cylinders.
Usually, the injectors have two pins. One pin is connected to the battery through the ignition relay and the other pin goes to the ECU. The ECU sends a pulsing ground to the injector, which closes the circuit, providing the injector's solenoid with current. The magnet on top of the plunger is attracted to the solenoid's magnetic field, opening the valve. Since there is high pressure in the rail, opening the valve sends fuel at a high velocity through the injector's spray tip. The duration that the valve is open- and consequently the amount of fuel sent into the cylinder- depends on the pulse width (i.e. how long the ECU sends the ground signal to the injector).
When the plunger rises, it opens a valve and the injector sends fuel through the spray tip and into either the intake manifold, just upstream of the intake valve, or directly into the cylinder. The former system is called multiport fuel injection and the latter is direct injection.
When a driver pushes his or her gas pedal, an accelerator pedal position sensor (APP) sends a signal to the ECU, which then commands the throttle to open. The ECU takes information from the throttle position sensor and APP until the throttle has reached the desired position set by the driver. But what happens next?
Either a mass air flow sensor (MAF) or a Manifold Absolute Pressor Sensor (MAP) determines how much air is entering the throttle body and sends the information to the ECU. The ECU uses the information to decide how much fuel to inject into the cylinders to keep the mixture stoichiometric. The computer continually uses the TPS to check the throttle’s position and the MAF or MAP sensor to check how much air is flowing through the intake in order to adjust the pulse sent to the injectors, ensuring that the appropriate amount of fuel gets injected into the incoming air. In addition, the ECU uses the o2 sensors to figure out how much oxygen is in the exhaust. The oxygen content in the exhaust provides an indication of how well the fuel is burning. Between the MAF sensors and the 02 sensor, the computer fine-tunes the pulse that it sends to the injectors.
Let's talk about idling. Most early fuel injected vehicles utilized a solenoid-based idle air control valve (IAC) to vary air flow into the engine during idle (see the white plug in the above image). Controlled by the ECU, the IAC bypasses the throttle valve and allows the computer to ensure smooth idle when the driver does not activate the accelerator pedal. The IAC is similar to a fuel injector in that they both alter fluid flow via a solenoid actuated pin.
Most new cars don't have IAC valves. With older cable-controlled throttles, the air entering the engine during idle had to go around the throttle plate. Today, that's not that case, as Electronic Throttle Control systems allow the ECU to open and close the butterfly valve via a stepper motor.
The ECU monitors the rotational speed of the engine via a crankshaft position sensor, which is commonly a Hall Effect sensor or optical sensor that reads the rotational speed of the crank pulley, engine flywheel, or the crankshaft itself. The ECU sends fuel to the engine based upon how fast the crankshaft rotates, which is directly related to the load on the engine. Let's say you turn on your air conditioning or shift your vehicle into drive. The speed of your crankshaft will decrease below the threshold speed set by the ECU due to the added load. The crankshaft position sensor will communicate this decreased engine speed to the ECU, which will then open the throttle more and send longer pulses to the injectors, adding more fuel to compensate for the increased engine load. This is the beauty of feedback control.
Why does your engine rev higher at startup? When you initially turn on the vehicle, the ECU checks the engine temperature via a coolant temperature sensor. If it notices that the engine is cold, it sets a higher idle threshold to warm the engine up.
Now that we've mentioned the ECU’s tasks of maintaining engine idle speed, as well as maintaining a proper air/fuel mixture, let's talk about ignition timing. To achieve optimum operation, the spark plug must be provided with current at very precise moments, usually about 10 to 40 crankshaft degrees prior to top dead center depending on engine speed. The exact moment that the spark plug fires relative to the piston’s position is optimized to facilitate the development of peak pressure. This allows the engine to recover a maximum amount of work from the expanding gas.
Older engines (up until the mid 2000s) used distributors to control spark. Shown above, this system consists of a rotor and a distributor cap. The rotor is electrically connected to the ignition coil, which is basically a transformer that steps 12v up to over 10,000 volts needed for spark. The rotor is mechanically connected to the camshaft via a gear. As the camshaft spins, so does the rotor. As the rotor spins, it comes very close to copper posts (one for each cylinder). The current from the ignition coil jumps the small air gap between the rotor and the posts, sending high voltage through spark plug wires, to each cylinder's spark plug at a specific time. Note that these systems needed a way to alter timing. At high engine speeds, advancing spark is necessary. Early engines with distributors used engine vacuum or rotating weights to adjust timing. Later, transistor-based timing systems became more common.
Modern vehicles don't use a centrally located ignition coil. Instead, these distributorless ignition systems (DIS) have a coil located on each individual spark plug. Based on input from the crankshaft position sensor, knock sensor, coolant temperature sensor, mass airflow sensor, throttle position sensor, and others, the ECU determines when to trigger a driver transistor, which then energizes the appropriate coil.
The ECU is able to monitor the piston’s position via the crankshaft position sensor. The ECU continually receives information from the crankshaft position sensor and uses it to optimize spark timing. If the ECU receives information from the knock sensor (which is nothing more than a small microphone) that the engine has developed a knock (which is often caused by premature spark ignition), the ECU can retard ignition timing so as to alleviate the knock.
The fourth major function of the ECU is to adjust valve timing. This applies to vehicles that utilize variable valve timing, which allows engines to achieve optimal efficiency at a multitude of engine speeds.
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