Controls for Modern Engines

Magdi K. Khair, Hannu Jääskeläinen

This is a preview of the paper, limited to some initial content. Full access requires DieselNet subscription.
Please log in to view the complete version of this paper.

Abstract: Abstract: The control system of a modern engine is responsible for maintaining performance at its optimum while at the same time keeping the engine from exceeding certain emission limits. The control system performs this function using three groups of components: sensors, processor, and actuators. Basic control system configurations are the open and the closed loop systems. A variation of the open loop system utilizing lookup tables, referred to as scheduled control, was common in early electronically controlled engines. Later control systems include model-based controls and neural networks.


The control system of a modern engine is responsible for maintaining performance at its optimum while at the same time keeping the engine from exceeding emission limits. For instance, good diesel engine performance may be had when fuel injection timing is relatively advanced. Yet, this timing may not be appropriate for maintaining NOx emissions below the mandated limit. The control action will then be to retard timing to a place where the engine can comply with NOx emission limits without necessarily exceeding particulate emission limits.

To perform its function, the control system must include three components:

  1. Sensors
  2. Controller
  3. Actuators

Sensors obtain a measurement of a physical variable through direct measurement or a combination of measurement and computation. For instance electromagnetic sensors can produce an electrical signal any time their magnetic field is interrupted. Gear teeth on the perimeter of a flywheel interrupting the magnetic field of a sensor can be used to indicate speed which is proportional to the frequency of the gear teeth interrupting the sensor’s magnetic field. A “soft” or “virtual” sensor delivers a value through an intermediate computation [371]. These sensors should be able to measure a range of physical and chemical quantities in a time short enough to meet the control requirements of high speed diesel engines. In addition, sensors have to survive the environment in which they are to perform their function. Yet, they need to be produced at a reasonable cost and deliver automotive type durability.

Electrical signals produced by sensors are relayed to the second major component of the control system, the controller. The controller is often described as the brain of the control system where a control action is determined on the basis of calculations that will keep system performance at the required level. The controller can be electronic, but many of these controllers can simply be mass-spring devices that control basic functions such as speed in engines. However, controllers based on purely mechanical or hydraulic devices have limited capabilities and are cumbersome and bulky. For this reason, modern control systems are fitted with electronic controllers built around microprocessors. These electronic controllers are commonly referred to as electronic control units (ECU) or electronic control modules (ECM).

The third of the three components of a control system is the actuator. An actuator is a device that receives an order from the controller to perform a certain function or a required control action. In most cases this control function requires that the actuator either close or open a flow path or move a system control component a specific distance. Because of this function actuators are generally likened to muscles in the human body. A very obvious and fundamental actuator in diesel engines is its fuel injection system which controls fueling to each cylinder. In the past fueling was adjusted by setting the pump rack, an action that controlled fueling to all cylinders simultaneously. Modern systems allow full-authority control over injection timing as well as fuel metering to each cylinder independently on a cycle-by-cycle basis.

Electronic engine control plays a vital role in the exhaust emission control from today’s engines. From the emission perspective, the goal of the engine control system is to provide the demanded quantity of fuel, air, and EGR (if any) at the required time and in the required temperature and pressure state. This control is executed over the engine lifetime, compensating for engine wear and deterioration. Additionally, as required in many applications, engine emission controls are supported by on-board diagnostic (OBD) systems, which activate a malfunction indicator light on the vehicle’s dashboard when an emission fault is detected.