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An electronic control unit is in many ways similar to human brain. It received
messages from various sources and after processing the information, it either instruct
actuators to perform some physical action or it stores the data away in its memory for
use at some time in the future.
Electronic sensors perform the information gathering role in this system. Each sensor
feeds the electronic control module (ECU) with information that relates to some
particular mechanical action or thermal effect. A sensor or transducer as it is called
when it gives an output signal proportional to the physical quantity it is measuring
converts physical actions it notices into either an analogue or digital electrical signal.
Sensors can be separated into two main classes, viz., active or self gathering and
passive or modulating. The passive type requires an external energy source to drive it
and the sensor acts only as an energy controller.
Pressure sensors
Different types of pressure sensors commonly available are
a) Variable resistor potentiometer
b) Variable inductance type
c) Variable differential transformer
d) Strain gauge and piezo resistive
e) Capacitor capsule
Variable resistor potentiometer type: When a wiper contact blade is rubbed over a
resistance material, it acts as a divider of the voltage that is applied to the
potentiometer resistor. In the circuit a drop in air pressure causes the wiper blade to
move towards the earthed end of the resistor thus reduces the output voltage signal. In
order to obtain reasonable sensitivity, a comparatively large movement of the wiper
blade must be provided.
Position and level sensors
This group of proximity sensors is designed to signal either a given position of
mechanical component or the level of a liquid in a reservoir. The many applications of
these position sensors are
a) Crankshaft angular position for timing of the ignition and injection systems
b) Crankshaft movement for computation of the engine speed for engine
management and tachometer operation
c) Throttle position for fuel injection and automatic transmission systems
d) Gearbox output shaft movement for speedometer, odometer and trip computer
e) Axle to body position for indication of axle loading
f) Maximum wear of brake friction material
g) Door position for door hazard indication
h) Road wheel movement for anti skid braking (ABS) systems
The different types of position sensors used in automobiles are
1. Magnetic-variable reluctance
2. Magnetic-d.c-excited inductive
3. Magnetic-Hall effect
4. Optical and fiber optics type
Optical opto-electronic sensors can be used
signal a shaft position when used in conjunction with fiber optics. The numerous
advantages suggest that this system will be used extensively in modern vehicles. A
LED light source is positioned opposite a phototransistor and a chopper plate in the
form of a disc is attached to the moving shaft. A slot or hole in the disc allows the
light to pass to the phototransistor at the instant when the slot is aligned with the LED.
At this point it signals the position of the shaft. Although it suggests a visual light
radiation, the system often uses light frequencies outside the vision of the human eye.
The LED fitted generally has a frequency which falls within the range infra red to
ultra violet. Voltage supplied to the LED is set to give a phototransistor output which
is sufficient after amplification to suit the ECU. A square wave pulse is given by this
type of sensor, this makes is compatible with the requirement of a digital system. One
drawback of this system is there is need to maintain the lens of the emitter and
receiver in a clean condition. Dirt on the surfaces reduces the sensor output. So
periodic attention to this task is necessary. Being the sensor is passive; it has the
capability of detecting zero motion.
Air flow sensors
Generally hot wire air flow sensors are used in automobiles. A hot wire air mass meter
relies on the cooling effect of the air as it passes over the heated wire. If this wire is
heated by passing a constant current through it then the temperature of the wire will
fall as the air flow is increased. Similarly if a hot wire is kept at a constant
temperature will be governed by the air flow, the large air flow requires the greater
current. Both the constant current and constant temperature methods use electronic
mean to measure the temperature. Generally this is achieved by utilizing the change in
resistance which occurs where the temperature is changed. Hot wire systems take into
account changes in air density. This is particularly important in cases where the
vehicle is operated at different attitudes. Atmospheric pressure decreases with attitude.
So in an area situated well above sea level the air mass supplied for a given throttle
opening is reduced considerably unless this feature is taken into account. The richer
mixture received by the engine would cause high exhaust pollution. A thin platinum
hot wire of diameter 0.070 mm is exposed to air which passes through a tube situated
where the galvanometer is placed in a bridge circuit, controls the current supplied to
the four arms of the bridge. When a signal shows that the bridge is unbalanced the
amplifier adjusts the heating current to restore the bridge to a balanced state. The
armature of the cold wire compensating resistor acts as a standard.
Throttle position sensor

Generally this type of sensor is a
potentiometer, which is meant for
altering electrical potential. One of the
simplest arrangements is a variable
resistor. In this case the throttle is
connected to a contact blade which
wipes across the resistor coil. As the
throttle is opened the number of resistor
coils in the circuit is reduced. This alters
the voltage and potential of the output in relation to earth. An improved accuracy and
a longer life are obtained by using alternative resistor materials to wire. A typical
sensor contains two pairs of contact blades one pair acts as a micro switch to signal
the throttle closed position. A constant voltage of 5v is applied to the sensors. As the
contact blades slide along the resistor in accordance with the opening of the throttle
valve. The output voltage increases proportionally. This linear signal is transmitted to
the ECU.
Temperature sensor

A number of sensors are used on a vehicle to
measure temperature. These include:
a) Engine temperature for ignition, fuel metering
and instrumentation
b) Air intake temperature for fuel metering and
vaporization control
c) Ambient conditions for driving safety
d) Exhaust temperature for fuel metering
The majority of the temperature uses a thermistor
along with the thermocouples where it is needed.
Thermistor sensor:
This type normally consists of a brass bulb, which is in contact with the substance it is
sensing. The bulb contains a capsule called a thermistor. Resistance of common
metals increases with temperature and thermistors which have a sensing capsule that
responds in this way are said to have a positive temperature coefficient (p.t.c). A
capsule made of a semiconductor material has a resistance which decreases with
temperature. These materials of which silicon is most common have a negative
temperature coefficient (n.t.c). Such thermistors are used in engine block to measure
the temperature of coolant.

The thermistor is excellent for
measuring temperature upto about
2000 C. But above this temperature a
thermocouple is normally used. It
consists of two wires of dissimilar
materials joined together and
connected to a galvanometer. When
the hot junction is heated, an e.m.f is
generated which is registered by the
galvanometer. Depending on the
materials upto a given temperature the current increases with an increase in the
temperature difference between the hot and cold ends of the wires. Indication of the
temperature is achieved by scaling of the galvanometer accordingly. A thermocouple
can be made by using two metals from antimony, iron, zinc, lead, copper and
platinum. Current will flow from the higher to the lower in this list across the cold
junction. Nowadays other metals and alloys are used for a thermocouple like nickel-
chromonium/ nickel aluminium alloys. This type is suitable for temperature range of
about 0-11000C, which is most common in exhaust system of the engine.
Knock detecting sensors

The main purpose of a knock sensor is
to detect the combustion knock in an
engine combustion chamber. A knock
sensor has to detect vibrations from
combustion knock in the frequency
range 1-10 kHz. When severe knock
occurs in the combustion chamber, the
transference of pressure waves through
the cylinder block causes the metal
particles to be accelerated to and fro.
The accelerometer type knock sensor
detects this oscillatory motion by using
a piezo-ceramic semiconductor.
Pressure on the semiconductor
generates a small electrical charge and
this is used to provide the signal
current. The body of the knock sensor
is screwed into the side of the cylinder
block and piezo electric crystal is
clamped by a seismic mass which tunes the sensor to the required frequency range.
When an oscillation is applied to the body of the sensor, the sound waves vary the
compression of the crystal. This causes a small e.m.f of the order of 20 mV/g to be
generator. Te small analogue signal current produced by the sensor when the engine is
knocking is transmitted to the ECU. After filtering to remove the unwanted waves, the
signal is then averaged and converted to a digital form to represent the knock/no-
knock conditions. Whenever a digital pulse is sensed by a logic circuit, the system
responds by reducing the spark timing advance or changing the A.F strength.
Oxygen sensor/EGO sensor/Lambda sensor

The detection of oxygen in the exhaust gas from an engine provides useful means for
controlling the air fuel mixture. Excess oxygen in the exhaust indicates that the air
fuel mixture is weak, whereas the deficiency of oxygen shows that the mixture is rich
and exhaust gas is polluting the atmosphere. The gas detector used to provide this
signal is called lambda sensor.
This type of exhaust gas oxygen sensor normally uses zirconium oxide (ZrO2)
for its active material. It consists of a thimble shaped portion of ZrO2 covered with two
thin and porous platinum electrodes. The internal electrode is in contact with air in the
center of the dome and the outer electrode is placed so that it is in contact with
exhaust gas. Extra protection again gas erosion is given by covering the outer
electrode with a porous alumina ceramic coating through which gas can penetrate.
The operation of the sensor is similar to a galvanic battery cell, in the case of the
sensor the ZrO2 acts as the electrolyte. At high temperatures, this electrolyte becomes
conductive so if the two plates are in contact with different amount of oxygen, then a
small voltage will be generated across the two plates. This action is produced because
oxygen atoms carry two electrons. So this means that the atom carries a negative
charge. The ZrO2 attracts oxygen ions with the result that negative charges build upon
the surface of ZrO2 adjacent to the platinum electrode. When the sensor is exposed to
exhaust gas a greater concentration of oxygen on the air side of the Z rO2 cause this
side to have a greater number of negative charges. In consequence a potential
difference is built up across the plate which will depend on the difference in oxygen
(Air factor for proper air fuel ratio is 1, Air factor is referred as lambda. The value of
lambda is given by
λ=Actual volume of air drawn/theoretical volume of air
The value of λ>1, it is referred as lean mixture
The value of λ<1, it is referred as rich mixture)