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The Role of Electronic Control Units (ECU) in Electric Vehicles

If the battery is considered the “heart” of your vehicle, then the electronic control unit may be considered its “brain”.

Electric cars have come a long way from their first iterations, and among those innovations is the electronic control unit. 

In this article, we will be covering what an electronic control unit is, what it is made up of, and what its role is in electric vehicles.

What are electronic control units?

An electronic control unit (ECU), which is interchangeably used with electronic control module (ECM), is a compact device embedded within a vehicle that controls a specific function.

ECU originally meant “engine control unit”, but has evolved to refer to any electronic unit in a vehicle. Back in the 1970s, it was initially designed to regulate ignition timing and optimising fuel-air mixtures for efficient combustion.

It soon took over fuel and ignition systems, drive-by-wire throttle, turbocharger activity, and emission control systems, among other areas. In recent decades, the ECU has developed further to include managing a wide range of inputs and outputs across systems. 

What are the functions of the ECU?

In an electric vehicle, electronic control units use software to manage engine operations, safety measures, braking systems, keyless entry, and comfortable driving, to name a few.

Generally, the ECU receives input from various areas of the EV and executes the necessary action in response.

For instance, when the car is about to collide with another vehicle or another object, the automatic emergency braking ECU gets sensor input determining the location of the object, activating the brakes. In an event of a collision, the ECU determines which airbags have to be deployed depending on where passengers are seated.

Modern cars have 80 ECUs while others have as many as 150, for everything from air conditioning, radio, and safety features, to fuel and keyless entry. Each one has a specific function they are responsible for that enables the vehicle to operate seamlessly. 

The future of ECUs

Electronic control units will continue to be instrumental in boosting electric vehicle technology. ECUs possessing excellent connectivity features will enhance vehicle-system integration and driver safety, while AI and machine learning will be useful in improving the car’s performance, safety, and fuel efficiency.

ECUs are necessary for sensor data processing to make sure that self-driving operations remain safe. They will also serve as the interface with smart city infrastructure for harmonious traffic flow and lower emissions. Finally, ECUs are essential to provide a tailored driving experience per individual.

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