An engine control unit (ECU), also commonly called an engine control module (ECM), is a type of electronic control unit that controls a series of actuators on an internal combustion engine to ensure optimal engine performance. It does this by reading values from a multitude of sensors within the engine bay, interpreting the data using multidimensional performance maps (called lookup tables), and adjusting the engine actuators. Before ECUs, air-fuel mixture, ignition timing, and idle speed were mechanically set and dynamically controlled by mechanical and pneumatic means.
Most modern engines use some type of fuel injection to deliver fuel to the cylinders. The ECU determines the amount of fuel to inject based on a number of sensor readings. Oxygen sensors tell the ECU whether the engine is running rich (too much fuel or too little oxygen) or running lean (too much oxygen or too little fuel) as compared to ideal conditions (known as stoichiometric). The throttle position sensors tell the ECU how far the throttle plate is opened when you press the accelerator. The mass air flow sensor measures the amount of air flowing into the engine through the throttle plate. The engine coolant temperature sensor measures whether the engine is warmed up or cool. If the engine is still cool, additional fuel will be injected.
Most engine systems have idle speed control built into the ECU. The engine RPM is monitored by the crankshaft position sensor which plays a primary role in the engine timing functions for fuel injection, spark events, and valve timing. Idle speed is controlled by a programmable throttle stop or an idle air bypass control stepper motor. Early carburetor-based systems used a programmable throttle stop using a bidirectional DC motor. Early throttle body injection (TBI) systems used an idle air control stepper motor. Effective idle speed control must anticipate the engine load at idle.
Experimental engines have been made and tested that have no camshaft, but have full electronic control of the intake and exhaust valve opening, valve closing and area of the valve opening. Such engines can be started and run without a starter motor for certain multi-cylinder engines equipped with precision timed electronic ignition and fuel injection. Such a static-start engine would provide the efficiency and pollution-reduction improvements of a mild hybrid-electric drive, but without the expense and complexity of an oversized starter motor.
Once more fully developed, electronic valve operation will yield even more benefits. Cylinder deactivation, for instance, could be made much more fuel efficient if the intake valve could be opened on every downstroke and the exhaust valve opened on every upstroke of the deactivated cylinder or "dead hole". Another even more significant advancement will be the elimination of the conventional throttle. When a car is run at part throttle, this interruption in the airflow causes excess vacuum, which causes the engine to use up valuable energy acting as a vacuum pump. BMW attempted to get around this on their V-10 powered M5, which had individual throttle butterflies for each cylinder, placed just before the intake valves. With electronic valve operation, it will be possible to control engine speed by regulating valve lift. At part throttle, when less air and gas are needed, the valve lift would not be as great. Full throttle is achieved when the gas pedal is depressed, sending an electronic signal to the ECU, which in turn regulates the lift of each valve event, and opens it all the way up.