Although “ECU” typically stands for engine control unit, that’s not always the case. It can also mean electronic control unit, which may be the same thing, but could also be something that has nothing to do with the engine at all. Depending on the vehicle in question — or the person you’re talking to — these may also be called an engine control module or electronic control module (ECM in both cases).
Related: What Do DOHC, SOHC and OHV Stand For?
All of that certainly can be confusing, but what they have in common is that they’re computers using inputs from various sensors to calculate the proper output to an actuator.
Electronic Control Unit
Electronic control units — of which there can be multiple on a car — may have specific functions that have nothing to do with the engine, such as controlling airbags or power door locks.
Engine Control Unit
In the case of an engine control unit — which can be about the size of a cigar box and located under the hood — the sensors detect such things as coolant temperature or throttle position, and the actuators include the fuel injectors and spark-plug coils. Some engine control units may control both of those, plus other systems such as cruise control or antilock brakes.
A primary job of the engine control unit is to determine the proper amount of fuel to be delivered along with the best spark timing to achieve optimal engine performance, which includes fuel economy and exhaust emissions. As such, if the ECU fails, fuel and spark wouldn’t be delivered at all, and the engine would immediately shut down.
Recognizing that — and the trouble it would cause — some ECUs include what’s known as a “limp-home mode.” This can be activated if either the ECU or sensors feeding it information fail. In limp-home mode, the ECU will keep the engine running, though it will likely run roughly and with limited power. Your speed may be limited, as well.
The idea is that you could still drive your vehicle a decent distance — hopefully to get home or to a service station rather than being left stranded — but you wouldn’t want to do it for long. If limp-home mode is activated, it will usually cause the check-engine light to illuminate in the instrument panel.
Because the engine control unit is programmed differently for different vehicles, replacements can’t be “generic.” In fact, even one out of the same year, make, model and engine of a donor car may not work in a seemingly identical car without the ECU being specifically programmed, typically to match the recipient car’s vehicle identification number.
While this is usually done at a dealership for that make of car, some independent shops may also have the capability of programming ECUs to a specific vehicle, and some online services claim they can fix a malfunctioning ECU if you send it to them — though that likely means you won’t have use of your car for a few days.
More From Cars.com:
- What Is a PCM?
- What Is a Dual-Clutch Transmission?
- What Is an EGR Valve and What Does It Do?
- What Are Paddle Shifters?
- More Car Service Advice
Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.