We all know that the complexity of automobiles has steadily increased since their invention and proliferation at the end of the Victorian era. Show the driver of a Tesla electric car the turn of the century and he or she will recognize the steering wheel, suspension and pedals, but not much else. In recent years, the design and development of the car has taken the computer by storm.

In 1968, Volkswagen was the first company to use a computer chip to control a car. They introduced a fuel injection computer into their Type 3 cars. The chip was incredibly sophisticated for its time; it made on-the-spot calculations to determine the best amount of fuel to inject into the engine.

Computers Found Their Way into Cars

Since then, cars and computers have evolved together. Today, all new-generation vehicles are equipped with several sophisticated computer systems that control fuel injection, diagnostics, mapping, media, safety and many other functions. Vehicle design is done using software, and aerodynamic simulations are done digitally before the car goes into the wind tunnel.

Designers in today’s automotive industry have less traditional educational backgrounds, reflecting the prevalence of digital technology in the automotive industry.

Automotive designers have had to retrain to incorporate computer science into their skills. Many continue their studies part-time or take courses, such as an online master’s in computer science, while continuing to have contracts with design and automotive companies.

It is worth reflecting on the many ways computers have made their appearance in our cars, and appreciating how much computer technology has changed design. Here are some of the unique niches that computers have filled. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Cars are full of computer technology to make decisions.

1. Diagnosis

One of the most useful functions of on-board computers is to tell you what’s wrong with your car when it breaks down. On-board diagnostic systems (or OBD, as they are commonly called) were first developed by General Motors in the 1980s, but they were relatively simple.

Modern OBD systems are required by law in many countries. They are essentially a diagnostic nerve center. Sensors such as thermostats, tire pressure gauges and voltmeters send all the information they collect to a diagnostic computer. In truly modern cars, the OBD system gives the driver detailed reports on the cause of problems.

It’s very rewarding. You will find the root cause of a problem that used to be one of the longest parts of a car repair. Nevertheless, the proliferation of OBD systems has led to some frustration.

Gasoline veterans often say that complex diagnostic systems make it difficult to fix your car – most amateur mechanics would not be able to program the code or reprimand the computer system if they wanted to maintain it.

Part of the fun of the car, they say, was the satisfaction of finding out what was wrong and fixing the problem themselves.

2. fuel consumption

As described in the introduction to this article, in the 1960s Volkswagen was the first manufacturer to install a computer chip in a fuel-injected car.

Fuel injection computers have revolutionized the way companies design efficient cars. By calculating the correct amount of fuel in each situation, the vehicle can ensure that it does not burn extra fuel and reduce its efficiency.

When designing a non-computerized fuel injection system, the designer would have to decide whether to prioritize efficiency or available power, but it would not be possible to keep both options optimal. Computer-controlled fuel injection allows vehicles to be designed to be both economical and efficient without compromise.

3. Safety

By 2022, automated safety systems will be required by law for all next-generation vehicles in the United States. Automated safety systems come in many forms. Sensors can alert drivers when they leave their lane, automated camera systems monitor the rear of the vehicle, and collision detection computers can detect people or oncoming traffic.

The latest computerized safety systems installed in cars are automatic braking systems linked to collision sensors. In theory, these sensors can predict a collision and bring the vehicle to a stop without driver intervention. This technology could save thousands of lives.

It could also help prevent cars from being used as weapons, which has become a worrying trend in recent years. A recent article in Smithsonian magazine describes the benefits of hacking.

A car could theoretically stop automatically if it senses that a collision with people is imminent. This would theoretically prevent the car from being used as a weapon.


Computer systems play a crucial role in the media’s representation of modern cars. Bluetooth connectivity, intelligent equalizers and voice control modes are relatively standard in newly developed vehicles. All that’s left to do is make the cassette to find time in the glove box.

Riders will no longer have to listen to the same copy of Bloody Saturday as the tape slowly wears and deforms.

Voice control technology, which happens to have been developed for fighter jets, can help drivers stay distracted on the road.

5. mapping

Many of us would be lost (literally) without the mapping function on board our car. The on-board computer monitors the vehicle’s GPS location and generates optimal routes.

Incredibly, the first digital mapping computer debuted 14 years before GPS. Honda’s electric gyrocator was released in 1981.

It used inertial positioning and odometer data from the vehicle to calculate the location of the vehicle. Really great computer technology from the 1980s that is now considered a milestone in engineering circles.

Today, mapping is done through GPS communication with satellites. In addition to information about where the vehicle is located, the computer also receives data about traffic situations, speed limits and accidents so that optimal routes can be planned. This is truly state-of-the-art data synthesis and visualization.

Frequently asked questions

What are the computers in the car?

The entire vehicle is made up of a large number of computers, called electronic control units (ECUs) – traffic lights and junctions, similar to our road systems. Each ECU has different tasks: to control the engine or transmission, to roll up the windows, to unlock the doors, etc.

How many computers are in the car?

An average car is equipped with 30 to 50 different computers, high-end cars have up to 100, and in addition there are 60 to 100 different electronic sensors.

In what year were computers installed in the cars?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, people started installing computers in cars. They were only sophisticated vehicle controls, and initially appeared only in high-tech, high-performance vehicles. By the mid-1990s, all cars were equipped with computers that controlled sensors, combustion, and the interaction of electrical systems.

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