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Car Computers: The Industry Drive for More Code

Car computer

The automotive industry has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to integrating new technologies. Henry Ford couldn’t have ever imagined what the modern assembly line would look like today. The innovation hasn’t stopped since the 1800s. But in the late 1960s, the industry went into overdrive.

Now, from hood to trunk, automakers are loading cars with computers, and these computers are processing millions of lines of code. Once upon a time, these computers controlled a small variety of systems, such as the ignition and the fuel injection. But now, whether it’s your cruising speed or your Bluetooth connection, they control just about everything.

The automobile’s journey from purely mechanical to predominantly electrical is fascinating. If you’re interested in learning more about the industry’s evolution, this article looks at the earliest electronic control units (ECUs), how today’s cars run on code, and what it all means for the future of cars.

A Red VW Type III
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The “First” Car Computer

Many automotive historians credit the 1968 Volkswagen Type III as the first car with a computer. Equipped with Bosch’s Jetronic electronic fuel injection (EFI) system engineered, the Type III utilized a pressure sensor that controlled the fuel injection rate and engine speed.

However, a decade earlier, Bendix Corporation developed an electronically controlled manifold injection system called the Electrojector. In 1957, American Motors Company (AMC), now the Jeep-Eagle division of Chrysler, offered the Electrojector as an option in some vehicles.

Bendix programmed this controller to increase the idle when the engine was cold, regulate the air-fuel ratio, and diminish exhaust emissions. Engineers at Bendix found a 10 percent power gain over carburetor-equipped V-8s and fuel-economy gains from 0.5 mpg at 45 mph to 2 mpg at 70 mph.

Chrysler offered Electrojector systems on its 1958 300D, DeSoto Adventurer, Dodge D-500, and Plymouth Fury. Factory records show that Chrysler only equipped 54 cars with this $600 option. Unfortunately, the Electrojector proved to be unreliable.

Interestingly, Bendix sold its patents to Bosch, who eventually created the Bosch D-Jetronic, which Volkswagen integrated into their Type III. When people credit the Type III, it’s because it’s really the first model with a computer that worked well. It also paved the way for computer-controlled cars from 1967 onward. In a matter of years, BMW, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Oldsmobile—you name it—were releasing cars with EFI systems.

Every Car Has a Computer

Enter the 1970s, and every automaker is integrating microprocessors into their vehicles. It was a nonstop rat race until the 1990s, when—aside from the 1991 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser—every car eventually had an EFI system as well as electronic control units (ECU or PCM) to control a myriad of electronic systems. Manufacturers developed many of these systems to meet government emission and safety standards.

Today cars have up to 150 computers and dozens of sensors measuring an array of performance indicators to ensure everything in your vehicle is running smoothly. What was once used to control basic functions, such as fuel injector regulation and ignition system monitoring, has advanced significantly. Some ECUs are now self-learning, meaning they adjust to specific driving conditions.

That said, a modern ECU generally contains a 32-bit, 40 to 200-MHz processor, with 128 KB to 10 megabytes (MB) of storage. If you own a PC, you may be surprised your car runs at all with those specs. But it’s important to remember that your car runs extremely specific and efficient code, some even taking up less than a single MB of memory. However, just because that code doesn’t take up a lot of memory doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of it.

a drawing representing the millions of lines of code in a car

The Computer Challenge

All of this technology has made cars faster, safer, and more fuel efficient. But every year, each piece of hardware and software gets more complex, making it increasingly difficult for a person to make their own auto repairs. In fact, many cars built in the last decade have more than 100 million lines of code.

This technology makes every aspect of your car work, from your headlamps and windshield wipers to your traction control and anti-lock brakes to your navigation system and backup camera. The days of primarily using physical tools to repair cars seem to be numbered. For this reason, we’ll likely continue to see reintroductions of the Right to Repair bill in the coming years.

For the consumer, the price of repairs only increases over time. Should they decide to buy new, electronics are responsible for 40 percent of a new car's total cost. With the current amount of granular data a car’s computers collect on its drivers, many people are starting to question if automakers are infringing on fourth amendment rights.

Further, it’s no secret that automotive innovation is supercharging the semiconductor industry. Many analysts predict the global semiconductor market size will reach over a trillion dollars by 2029.

Working on Your Car’s Computer

Many auto enthusiasts want to make the most of the car they have, and mechanics want to help their customers get where they need to go. To do so, many people have to connect to their car’s computer to check for issues and optimize performance.

If you want to learn how to power up your ECU on the bench, check out BenchForce’s store today. If you don’t see the harness you need, reach out to us so we can assist you.