These days it seems like you need a degree in computer engineering to work on your car. In fact, today's automobiles can have as many as 50 microprocessors controlling everything from the engine's air/fuel mixture to GPS navigation. You may think that adding all these computers just makes modern cars more complicated and prone to breakdowns when just the opposite is true. Thanks to computers, 21st century automobiles are more reliable, more efficient and actually easier to fix than cars of decades past. Also, when breakdowns do occur, computers make it easier to identify what went wrong.
Here are just a few of the places you're likely to find a computer on a modern car or light truck:
• The Engine. The engine control unit (ECU) is usually the largest and most powerful computer in a car. Its primary function is to control the air/fuel mixture so that the catalytic converter can properly remove pollutants.
• Airbag Module. Today's cars are equipped with sensors that can detect the external pressures associated with a crash and then trigger the airbags to inflate in literally a fraction of a second.
• Transmission. When you move a gearshift lever, chances are you're not interacting directly with your car's transmission but with a computer that reads your command and then electronically sets the transmission accordingly.
• Driver's Door Module. This is the computer through which the driver controls automatic windows and door locks, mirror positioning and, often, lighting.
• Climate Control Module. This computer/sensor combination not only allows a driver or passenger to manually control cabin temperature, but activates the heater or air conditioner to adjust the internal temperature to preset levels.
• ABS Module. This computer helps control braking and may also control traction control and stability.
• GPS Navigation. Any car equipped with onboard GPS navigation is going to have a computer dedicated to operating this system.
• Communications/Entertainment. Many of today's cars come equipped with Bluetooth-enabled communications and entertainment systems that provide wireless interactivity with mobile phones.
• Dashboard Display. Speedometer. Tachometer. Odometer. Gas gauge. Even if the display is analog, the controls are digital.
• Dashboard Radio. Yeah, there's a little computer in there, too, that remembers all your station settings.
Virtually all of these microprocessors are linked to a central port so, if there's a problem, all a technician has to do is plug a diagnostic computer into the port to get a detailed analysis directly from the vehicle itself. Sometimes, the solution isn't mechanical either, but a software update.
But don't despair. Most repairs still require an old-fashioned wrench and power tools, too!
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