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How Electronic Throttle Control Systems Work

How Electronic Throttle Control Systems Work

Up until the late 1980s, most cars had a fairly straightforward throttle control. You stepped on the accelerator pedal, the throttle opened, and air flowed into the engine, where it mixed with gasoline and burned. This burning gas powered the car's wheels, getting you down the road. If you wanted to go faster, all you had to do was step down harder -- the throttle would open wider, giving the car more power.

But electronic throttle control, which is sometimes called drive-by-wire, uses electronic, instead of mechanical, signals to control the throttle. That means that when you step on your car's gas pedal, instead of opening the throttle, you're activating an accelerator pedal module, which converts the pressure you put on the pedal into an electric signal. That signal is then sent to an electronic control unit, which takes your inputs into account, as well as outside variables, to open the throttle for optimum efficiency and performance.

It's a complex system, but one that has a lot of benefits for engine wear, performance and efficiency. However, like any complex system, it's not perfect, and drivers have raised a lot of questions about them. Can outside signals interact with the ETC? What kind of failsafe are in place if such interference happens? Read on to learn the answers.

Benefits of Electronic Throttle Control
Electronic throttle control systems may seem a little silly. After all, if a mechanical throttle control system works, why make it more complicated?

While it's true that electronic throttle control adds complications, it also adds a number of benefits. The first is decreased maintenance. Mechanical throttle systems, because they are made up of a lot of moving parts, are subject to a lot of wear. Over the life of the car, the various components can wear out. By comparison, an electronic throttle control system has comparatively few moving parts -- it sends its signals by electric impulse, not moving parts. That reduces wear and the amount of maintenance needed on the system.

Beginning in 2009, electronic throttle control systems made headlines as a result of a large-scale recall of Toyota vehicles due to acceleration control problems. Given the negative press electronic throttle control systems received, you may be surprised to know that electronic throttle controls add a number of safety benefits over mechanical systems. In a mechanical system, the throttle relies only on driver input to decide how far to open or close. With an electronic throttle control system, the main control unit not only reads input from the driver's foot on the accelerator, but it also examines input from wheels that are slipping, wheels that have grip, the steering system and the brakes, helping correct driver error and keep the car under control. In other words, a throttle control system can balance several factors that affect a car's speed and direction -- not just a foot on the pedal. Plus, electronic throttle control is a key component in most cruise control systems.
 Electronic throttle control may be a complex system, but it makes driving a car easier and safer, and it can reduce maintenance.
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