HomeTips & GuidesPCB Control Board: Control Computers in Vehicles and Other Machines

PCB Control Board: Control Computers in Vehicles and Other Machines

A PCB control board is a specially designed and manufactured circuit board that controls and regulates the operations of other electronic components or electrical systems.

Don’t confuse this control board with a PCB controller. A controller is a single or set of electrical components that monitor various aspects of the circuit board they are mounted on.

Let’s focus on these PCB control boards, specifically the ones that run electrical systems and electronic components in vehicles. Take a look!

PCB Control Board Technical Specifications

As stated earlier, circuit board control boards are PCBs that control various electrical/electronic systems.

Most of these electronic products are multi-layer boards containing 2-8 internal copper layers. Advanced units require more internal layers to host more active and passive components for control and monitoring.

Since these multilayer boards are dense, the PCBs usually house surface-mount components. They can have through-hole components mounted on the conductive layers, but these parts are rare due to their large size.

When building these control boards, ensure you follow the recommended design process guidelines and adhere to industry standards. 

Also, carefully pick your fabricator and assembler to ensure the PCB does not have material defects, broken traces, soldering issues, etc.

Components of PCB Control Boards

These control boards feature the following components.

Core Components

Like computer motherboards, circuit board control boards feature two core components: the microcontroller and memory.

Microcontrollers (integrated circuits) are the brains of the control board because they handle all the tasks and operations. 

On the other hand, memory components hold the data for permanent storage or temporary keeping before and after processing by the microcontroller.

A microcontroller chip mounted on a PCB

A microcontroller chip mounted on a PCB

These memory components include the volatile SRAM, non-volatile EEPROM, and flash memory for storing the firmware and permanent data.

Embedded Software

These control boards cannot operate without software. And they usually run four of them, including the bootloader, which initializes the integrated circuit operations.

They also have configuration data for storing preferences/user settings and software/PCB identifiers to handle checksums, software versions, and metadata.

The last components are the functional software routines, which run the specific PCB tasks.

Inputs

These control boards usually have three input types. Power inputs supply and ground the unit to enable it to operate. The second and third are digital and analog inputs. Digital inputs receive binary signals, while analog inputs receive variable signals.

Outputs

Depending on the digital and analog inputs, PCB control boards can control the connected electrical/electronic components using these outputs.

A motor driver board

A motor driver board

  • Logic outputs for sending signals based on the processed data
  • H-bridge drivers to precisely control servo motors
  • Actuator drivers regulate the movements of relays, injectors, valves, etc.

Communication Elements

These control boards communicate/interface with other computers using bus transceivers like CAN bus, K-Line, and ethernet.

Protective Casing

PCB control boards must have protective casings to guard the components described above from damage.

Role of ECUs in Car Evolution

Electronic Control Units are the most popular types of PCB control boards, and they are the brains behind many car functions.

These components are the primary enablers of embedded systems that allow various electronic vehicle parts to communicate and operate efficiently. 

Therefore, they have played a crucial role in transforming cars into the advanced units we drive today.

A dismantled electronic control unit

A dismantled electronic control unit

Here’s a brief overview of the ECU’s role in car evolution in different decades.

  • 1970s to 1980s: Invention of the ECU to control primary engine functions like air-fuel mixing and ignition timing adjustment to optimize fuel combustion.
  • 1980s to 1990s: The emergence of electronic fuel injection made Engine Control Units take over fuel mixing, fuel injection, and ignition in gas/petrol engines.
  • 1990s to 2000s: ECU began to appear in diesel-powered cars and vehicle security systems.
  • 2000s to 2010s: ECUs started controlling drive-by-wire throttles, turbochargers, and exhaust emissions.
  • 2010s to 2020s: Vehicles housed more ECUs, such as BCMs, BMS, PCMs, etc., to coordinate and optimize various car functions.
  • The 2020s moving forward: Modern vehicles have over 80 ECUs and will have more to handle emerging features like autonomous driving.

Types of ECUs in Vehicles

Vehicles have multiple ECUs, with the most popular ones including the following.

  • Engine Control Module: These modules have the same acronym (ECU) as the generic term for car computers (Electronic Control Unit). The units control multiple electronic devices and parts in an internal combustion engine.
An engine control unit

An engine control unit

  • Transmission Control Module: This automotive component regulates the functions of automatic and semi-automatic transmissions.
  • Powertrain Control Module: PCMs are combined modules comprising the engine and transmission control modules. Some vehicles have the ECU and TCM as separate computers, while others have PCMs to handle the entire powertrain.
  • Body Control Module: As the name suggests, this module monitors and controls various accessories mounted on the vehicle’s body. These include the immobilizer, power windows, central locking, power mirrors, etc.
  • Cruise Control (Speed Control Unit): This computer controls a servomechanism to take over your car’s throttle and maintain the set speed steadily. Also, it stops or brakes the vehicle if it detects obstacles ahead.
  • Electronic Brake Control Modules: This module might be a single computer or two separate units (Anti-Lock Braking System and Electronic Stability Control)
  • Steering Control Unit: Supports steering via the electric motor in the steering rack. Also, it can support autonomous driving and driver assistance functions.
  • Suspension Control Module: Advanced vehicles with sporty functions feature active suspensions that adjust the ride height, comfort, and stiffness. These modules adjust the suspension tension to match the selected driving mode.

Other modules include the following.

  • Climate Control Module
  • Telematic Control Unit
  • Battery Management System
  • Infotainment Control Module
A person connecting a cable connector to a climate control module

A person connecting a cable connector to a climate control module

Other Applications of PCB Control Boards

Although more synonymous with vehicle control units, PCB control boards are also critical in the following areas.

  • Robotic control systems
  • Traffic light control
  • Test and measurement equipment
  • Industrial process control systems
  • HVAC systems
  • Elevator and escalator control systems
  • Building security and monitoring systems
  • Home appliance control
  • Medical devices

Advantages of Circuit Board Control Boards

  • Increased reliability: These systems enhance the reliability of the vehicle or machine by smoothening functionality and communicating with other modules. Also, they make it easy to detect faults in electronic devices.
  • Flexibility: Circuit board control boards enable flexible electronic device design with more efficient space utilization.
A mechanic inspecting an EV’s rear-drive motor inverter module

A mechanic inspecting an EV’s rear-drive motor inverter module

  • Reduced energy consumption: These control boards minimize power consumption by simplifying operations and electrical connections in complex systems. Otherwise, the system would be messy with wires for individual switch-to-actuator connections. These multiple connections increase power consumption.
  • Enhanced functionality: Circuit board control boards increase and improve the functionality of the system they control. For instance, these boards/modules have enabled cars to advance over the years, making them more advanced.

Others include:

  • High precision control, resulting in efficiency
  • Better system immunity from exterior interference

Wrap Up

Circuit board control boards require experienced manufacturers to produce and assemble them to ensure maximum reliability with zero issues.

While you can buy them as ready-made units for your project, building these control boards from scratch might be cheaper and more fun.

Let’s say you want to upgrade your old vehicle to have an ECU to control air-fuel mixing and ignition timing. 

You’ll gain more experience and knowledge if you design and get the control board made from scratch. We can help if you need custom wires for your PCB control board assembly. Contact us to get started.

Hey, I am Lillian Yang, Sales manager of Cloom Tech.

I am a responsible, intelligent and experienced business professional with an extensive background in the electronics industry.

Reach me at [email protected] to get a quote for your projects.

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