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Image Gallery: Computer Hardware

The ECM is basically an on-board computer in your car -- it's composed of hardware (a pretty standard circuit board) that's encoded with software (a program that tells the car how to run). See more pictures of computer hardware.

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How the Engine Control Module Works

Of all the things that can go wrong with a car, electrical system flaws are some of the most maddening. They're difficult to trace, often come and go as they please (enabling the mechanic's favorite cop-out response, "Could not replicate problem") and the symptoms often appear far from the source. Sometimes, the symptoms of electrical problems don't even seem electrical in nature. And what are you supposed to do then?

The engine control module might betray a few hints, even in name alone. Sometimes, the names of automotive components are so bizarre that we forget that some terms are completely intuitive and logical. "Engine control" is a no-brainer; "module" implies it's electrical in nature. And if that's not enough to enlighten you, well, at least you weren't the first to ask those questions. If you type "electronic control module," or its better-known acronym, ECM, into the search field, you'll be gently guided over to the ECU (engine control unit) page. And from there it can get confusing, because there's a whole rat's nest of electrical terminology to trace and pick through. Sometimes, the engine control module is at fault for issues that would often be assumed to be "mechanical," like engine noise or problems with the engine running smoothly. So if you or your mechanic is going crazy trying to figure out why your car won't run, it might be because your car's ECM is just tired from doing it all, and needs some attention.

Chances are, if you have relatively basic questions about your car's electrical functions, it's running a common system or program that's been in place since your car was built. (We'll assume, for example, you didn't buy a second-or third-hand tuned sport compact running MegaSquirt custom injection to keep an oversized turbocharger in line -- or that your car can perform everyday driving functions without constant attention to a laptop perched in the passenger seat.)

Functions of the Engine Control Module

The engine control module basically controls the intersection of the engine's necessary ingredients to make energy -- fuel, air and spark. That sounds simple, kind of in the same way an engine itself sounds simple if you break it down into really basic terms. But the ECM accomplishes its considerable chore by constantly monitoring a vast network of sensors around the car to ensure conditions are within normal operating range. When something goes wrong, the ECM adjusts conditions or, if it can't, the car won't run properly or at all. When there's a problem, the ECM stores a trouble code so it can be diagnosed by a mechanic (with a scanner specifically designed for that purpose) and triggers the check engine light so the driver knows something's wrong.

Newer engine computer systems also feature lightweight, low-cost memory systems that can be easily accessed by the dealership to fix programming issues and update specifications (kind of like running a system or software update on your computer).

One of the most recent tasks (in the last decade or so, anyway) delegated to the engine computer came about only as automotive companies switched from mechanical throttle control to electronic throttle control. Previously, when your foot made contact with the gas pedal, it was connected to a cable that went directly to the engine so the engine could decide how much fuel to inject, based on whether you caressed the pedal, mashed it to the floor, or most likely, somewhere in between. Now, an electronic sensor at or near the gas pedal sends a signal via electrical wire to the engine management system, which evaluates your throttle contact and then sends a signal to the engine to adjust fuel dosage.

Part of the ECM's start-up procedure is to calibrate the position of the throttle at idle -- in other words, remind itself, and the throttle, how the engine should run when it's not being given any gas. This helps control and prevent an uneven idle. If all the sensors involved don't agree on the right position, the computer will send a signal to the engine and transmission to run in Limp Mode (preventing the driver from achieving high speeds that could get out of hand) and also sends an alert to the instrument cluster. The idea is to allow it to run well enough to get to a repair shop, but not strand you on the side of the road.

The ECM also makes sure the car meets emissions standards, by monitoring and regulating the fuel mixture to ensure the engine isn't running too rich and emitting pollutants beyond the established parameters. And with all those sensors already in place, the ECM is often responsible for managing features like anti-skid brakes, cruise control and theft protection.

That sounds like a lot to keep straight, doesn't it? So, on top of it all, the engine control module, unit, or what have you, runs through a recalibration test every time you turn on the car, just to make sure signals don't get crossed.

Engine Control Module Technology

The ECM is a computer, and features many of the same parts as the computer you have at home or at work. There's a microprocessor that receives, interprets and reacts to sensor inputs as fast as they occur. And it's composed of hardware (a pretty standard circuit board) that's encoded with software (a program that tells the car how to run).

The engine control systems aren't really designed by the auto manufacturer -- they're one of the components that's sourced and then customized. Only a handful of OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) make ECM systems for cars. Each brand and type can be customized to fit the automotive manufacturer's specifications. However, an ECM must be configured by the manufacturers so a car can perform optimally, taking engine specs and other factors into consideration. Even though OEM suppliers offer a variety of engine computer products with different benefits and features, the same system can be tuned to work with a range of different cars. However, as a starting point, they're broken down into categories like fuel type (gasoline or diesel), engine size and so on.

An ECM is a pretty basic car part -- not to diminish its importance, but it's not the kind of feature that a car shopper would use to decide between different models. It's just there. An exception to this rule is modified cars that need to run a programmable ECM. We already mentioned MegaSquirt as one such example (because it has the most memorable name) -- that system is designed specifically to run custom fuel injection management. There are numerous others with less colorful monikers that can assist you if your custom engine management needs are, for example, due to a really high-end exhaust system (regulating oxygen and emissions) or aftermarket turbochargers (to keep tabs on the engine's air intake). Some of these take the place of the regular ECM, while others need to be constantly babied and nurtured with additional accoutrements, like extra gauges or even extra computers. (Remember Paul Walker racing in "The Fast and the Furious," yelling at the laptop monitoring his nitrous injectors instead of actually watching the street?)

The good news is, unless you're doing research for a custom ECU or ECM for a specific purpose, like a weekend track toy or a trail bike, you don't need to concern yourself too much with the differences amongst OEM engine computers. They're all designed to perform the same basic functions and you don't have a choice about what originally came in your car, anyway.

Regardless of the differences between different car models and different ECMs, the inputs in each system remain pretty much the same. The ECM is tasked with providing fuel and regulating emissions, but there's a lot that needs to happen for that to work. We already talked about the ECM's specific tasks, but that simplifies the process a bit too much. The ECM usually monitors and regulates the throttle position sensor, which tells the engine how much air and fuel to mix to make power; the coolant temperature sensor, which lets the engine know if it's running too hot (and alerts the driver, via the instrument panel light); the voltage regulator, which tracks and adjusts how much power is being sent throughout the car; the fuel injectors, which provide fuel at precisely the right moment for optimum power delivery; the position sensors for the camshaft and crankshaft, which identifies the engine's cycles; the mass airflow sensor and MAP (manifold absolute pressure) sensor, which monitor different ways air affects the engine; the oxygen sensor, which measures exhaust quality; idle control; the EGR valve sensor, which also helps with emissions and the ignition control, which regulates the spark plugs.

And all of this is going on all at once, as the car moves -- and reactions must be immediate. So it's a little nerve-wracking to think that the ECM can go bad just like any other car part. The consequences might be more dire than, say, the processor on your laptop crapping out.

It takes specialized knowledge and specific tools to repair, not replace, an ECM.

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Engine Control Module Repairs

First off, don't confuse replacing an ECM with repairing one. The end result might be the same -- you can drive your car again, after all -- but engine control modules and units do sometimes go bad, and they aren't really designed to be repaired -- at least, not by the owner or by an average mechanic. It shouldn't be too hard to swap out a faulty ECM for a new one, but that's about as user-friendly as this process can get. Quite simply, it takes specialized knowledge and specific tools to repair, not replace, an ECM.

Actually repairing an ECM requires disassembling the unit and performing some pretty detailed, precision-critical electronics work. It's similar to repairing the motherboard in a desktop computer -- assuming it can be repaired it all. Some experts recommend removing and opening the unit, and sniffing around for the telltale signs of electrical damage (if you've never smelled it before, consider yourself lucky -- but you'll probably still be able to identify the chemical tang of burned metal). Also, if there is any corrosion from acid or moisture damage, it'll probably be easily visible. If you're not planning to do the repairs yourself, the only benefit to this step is that you'll know you're on the right track with your diagnosis. That said, the absence of such evidence does not mean the ECM is fine. Got that?

Your options are to buy a new ECM, or send in your old one and wait for it to be repaired (and you can probably guess which one costs less). So even if you or your mechanic suspects the ECM might be the source of your trouble, you should troubleshoot and eliminate all other potential problems before pulling the ECM and installing a new one. Replacement can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars, and can be made more complicated (and expensive) if the ECM has to be modified to accommodate security systems, smart keys, immobilizers, or anything else electronic that is specifically configured to your car. And don't forget that many ECM repair services are happy to return a unit they determine is beyond repair (if certain areas of the processor have been damaged, vital data cannot be retrieved). This might seem baffling at first -- you might wonder what purpose a completely fried ECM could possibly serve -- but remember that the unit stores all kinds of personal data from your car, which some people might not want left hanging around forever in some random warehouse.

It's worth noting that, just as a bad ECM can cause all sorts of electrical problems, the inverse is also true -- faulty or malfunctioning sensors can actually damage your ECM. That's another argument in favor of following a thorough troubleshooting procedure before assuming the source of a problem. If you know you have a faulty sensor or two, get them replaced as soon as possible.

Author's Note

After researching this article, I'm still not entirely clear on the difference between an ECM (engine control module) and ECU (engine control unit). Of the two terms, ECU seems to be the most popular. Google verifies its preference for ECU by delivering more detailed search results, whereas some other sources seem to treat the ECM as a subcategory of ECUs.

In practical terms, I'm not sure if it really matters. That's the conclusion I draw when reputable sources (such as automotive repair manuals and long-established technology publications) use the terms interchangeably. One of my favorite authorities on explaining automotive intricacies to the average American, Mike Allen of Popular Mechanics, has, on occasion, skirted the issue by referring to the system as the "engine management computer." One such reference was in an article discussing the backlash against Toyota, when, in 2010, a handful of its cars were found to accelerate seemingly on their own -- in other words, he was breaking down a complicated issue for people who were curious about it, but needed the situation explained at the most basic levels. (Remember that? A bunch of Toyota owners, claimed their cars could accelerate on their own without warning and all efforts to stop them failed. The problem was blamed on faulty automatic throttle control units sending bad signals to faulty ECUs -- or something like that -- but never ultimately concluded.)

So if you found this article by searching for "engine control unit" or any other combination of related terms, I hope this clears up the confusion. And for what it's worth, Mike Allen also managed to explain, in simple terms, why the ECU on a bunch of Camrys, Corollas and Avalons simply couldn't have failed at the rate reported by the media.

Related ArticlesSources
  • Allen, Mike. "10 Car Mysteries Solved: Expert Car Care Clinic Q&A." Popular Mechanics. Sept. 8, 2009. (April 18, 2012) http://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/how-to/repair-questions/4330138
  • Allen, Mike. "Anatomy of Toyota's Problem Pedal: Mechanic's Diary." Popular Mechanics. March 3, 2010. (April 14, 2012) http://www.popularmechanics.com/_mobile/cars/news/industry/4347704
  • Allen, Mike. "Toyota Sudden Acceleration Backlash." Popular Mechanics. March 8, 2010. (April 22, 2012) http://www.popularmechanics.com/cars/news/industry/toyotarecalelectronics2010
  • Delphi. "Delphi MT80 Engine Control Module." (April 14, 2012) http://delphi.com/manufacturers/auto/powertrain/gas/ecm/mt80/
  • ECM--ToGo. "ECM Tech Info." 2012. (April 24, 2012) http://www.ecmtogo.com/ECMTips2.htm
  • ECM--ToGo. "Removing the ECM ECU TCU electronic control module transmission control module." 2012. (April 24, 2012) http://www.ecmtogo.com/removing_ecm.htm