MCU Solutions for Automotive CAN Networking

By Jon Gabay

Contributed By Electronic Products

The automotive industry has embraced diagnostic buses. These fairly straightforward, low-cost, serial interfaces allow automakers to connect sensors, actuators, power controls, buttons, switches, displays, indicators, and so on. The complex, expensive, and often unreliable wiring bundle harnesses of the past are all but gone.

This is also a boon to both professional mechanics and 'do it yourselfers'. Low-cost readers can help troubleshoot issues with modern cars and engines. As it taps into the car’s electronics, we have access to engine statistics, real time sensor data, settings, modes, stored alerts, and error codes.

Many embedded designs take advantage of this connectivity, from low-cost signal pass-through and intercepts (for remote starters), through handheld data terminal types of readers, to more complex real-time data acquisition tools for racing and other high-performance applications.

As a result, there is a range of microcontrollers, from small 8-bit to high-end 32-bit parts, that target this large and receptive crowd via the CAN bus, a vehicle bus standard designed to allow microcontrollers and devices to communicate with each other within a vehicle without a host computer. This message-based protocol was designed specifically for automotive applications, but is now also used in areas such as aerospace, industrial automation, and medical equipment.

This article looks at microcontrollers supporting CAN applications. All parts, datasheets, tutorials, and development systems referenced in this article can be found on the Digi-Key website.

A common standard

The state of California began legislating the use of control systems to combat smog back in 1966. These ideas made their way into the clean air act of 1970, and the use of computerized automotive systems to reduce emissions was born.

By 1988, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) had defined standard diagnostics, connectors, and signals. After the EPA adopted most of the SAE criteria, OBDII became the extended set of standards in 1996. Since 1996, the basic OBDII protocols have been split as follows, European and Chrysler used ISO 9141 (or KWP2000), Ford used the pulse-width modulated SAE J1850, and GM used SAE J1850 with variable pulse-width modulation.

In 2008, it became mandatory that all cars sold in the U.S. use the modern OBDII protocols employing CAN twisted-pair signaling, or ISO15765-4, which uses the standard SAEJ1962 connector and differential signaling on pin 6 and 14 for communications (Fig. 1). The only variations are identifier length and bus speeds (Table 1).

Variant Identifier Length Bit Rate
1 11 bit 500 Kbaud
2 29 bit 500 Kbaud
3 11 bit 250 Kbaud
4 29 bit 250 Kbaud

Table 1: The modern ISO15765-4 connections vary with identifier bit length and data rates.

Older protocols use signal pairs 7/15, or 2/10

Figure 1: Older protocols use signal pairs 7/15, or 2/10. With mandated ISO15765, pins 6 and 14 are the differential signal pairs that the CAN bus uses.

The de facto standard ELM327 command set is similar to the AT-style command set used by Hayes modems. ASCII strings and parameters kick-off function and return status information on engine data, codes, and more. Because of the free-flowing availability of information, ROM-based look-up tables can hold code meanings accessible to firmware. Older cryptic codes are easily decoded using Internet search engines. In addition, how-to fix-it posts and videos make it easier than ever for individuals to take advantage of the OBDII and CAN interface.

Just hanging on the bus

Several types of products are in good position to take advantage of OBDII to tap into the car’s electronic systems. Since CAN allows multi-masters on the bus using a collision detect and avoidance scheme, it is relatively easy to add computing horsepower to a CAN bus-controlled vehicle. All nodes use mailboxes and buffers to share and obtain data from each other, listen for the commands, and jump in when addressed.

In addition to static measurements, real-time engine data is available over OBDII. This allows custom gauges and instrument clusters on a multi-functional display, especially important for modern vehicles that do not even have a temperature gauge on the dashboard. In addition, performance-enhancing chips for the car’s computers allow power users to fine-tune performance or economy settings (usually at the risk of violating terms of the car’s warranty).

It is important to know that the framed packets on the CAN bus are UART-style data strings. As a result, any microcontroller that has a UART with a good timing-control circuit that can maintain accuracy at non-standard baud rates is a viable candidate for CAN control.

On the other hand, the physical interface uses a half-duplex differential signaling technique that most UART-based micros do not support. As a result, to patch a UART into CAN will require a CAN transceiver chip like the Infineon IFX1050G (Fig. 2A), or the ON Semiconductor AMIS426711CAB1RG (Fig. 2B). These types of physical layer interface chips adapt the logic level TX and RCV lines to the electrically isolated or non-isolated automotive bus.

Infineon IFX1050G (left) ON Semiconductor AMIS426711 (right)

Figure 2: CAN bus transceivers let any UART-based micro gain connectivity to the OBDII bus. Each has useful features. The Infineon IFX1050G (left) has inhibit, read-only and low-power modes useful for readers that may disconnect from the power supplied by the car. The ON Semiconductor AMIS426711 (right) features an auto-baud detector useful for detecting and supporting older protocols.

Microcontrollers with built-in differential transceivers can be general-purpose or application specific. Take for instance the Innovasic IA82527PLC44AR2 CAN Controller IC (Fig. 3). It is form, fit, and function compatible with the legacy Intel 82527 Communications controller with a facelift for CAN support. Peripheral-style CAN support also comes from Microchip with its MCP2515T-1/ML SPI-accessible standalone CAN controller, and from NXP with its SJA1000T/N1,118 standalone CAN controller with parallel interface.

Innovasic IA82527

Figure 3: CAN controllers as self-standing peripheral chips can help get a design to market quickly since most of the heavy lifting is already done. The Innovasic IA82527 provides both serial and parallel interfaces as well as I/O ports for a local host microcontroller.

Legacy architectures do a fine job of handling the CAN data. The 8-bit, 50 MHz Silicon Labs C8051F550-IM has a CAN controller built-in as a peripheral to the well-liked 8051 core processor (Fig. 4). The 1.8 to 5.25 volt parts use mostly single-cycle instructions giving it up to a 12x performance compared to the older 8051s.

Silicon Labs 8051-based C8051F550

Figure 4: As an added peripheral to a legacy core, the Silicon Labs 8051-based C8051F550 lets designers keep legacy boards and code while adding CAN functionality.

Other on-chip peripherals include I²C, SPI, UART, and 12-bit A/D. The company also provides the C8051F560DK development kit that takes advantage of the on-chip serial debug interface and emulator port. A Serial Communications Overview Product Training Module is also available on Digi-Key’s website.

For a bit more horsepower, 16-bit parts like the Freescale MC912D60ACFUE8 could be a good choice. As part of the company’s HC12/HC16 family, these 16-bit parts are upwardly code compatible with the familiar 68HC11 family of processors with 20-bit ALU, mixed-signal support, and differential CAN bus pins.

A key benefit to the Freescale part is the msCAN software that provides message scheduling and prioritization, as well as advanced buffer management for coordinating multiple messages and activities. Of particular interest are two maskable, identifier acceptance filters for compliance with the CAN 2.0 B extended identifier modes. The Freescale parts also have serial debug/emulation ports and internal EEPROM, as well as Flash.

More complex designs may include driving high resolution LCD’s and TFTs, while also integrating Ethernet, GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or USB. These designs will need more I/O, wider data paths, external buses and, in general, more horsepower. Many off the shelf-embedded processors are ready to serve here such as the Renesas RX600 series of 32-bit MCUs with CAN support. The 32-bit RX CPU core delivers 165 DMIPS at a maximum operating frequency of 100 MHz, and the Renesas MCUs implement one channel (32 mailboxes) of the CAN module (Fig. 5) that complies with the ISO11898-1 specifications. The CAN module transmits and receives both formats of messages, namely the standard identifier (11 bits) and extended ID (29 bits). Renesas also offers a Product Training Module entitled CAN peripheral and API.

Renesas CAN module

Figure 5: Block diagram of the Renesas CAN module.


The automotive processing environment is much easier to diagnose and control using OBDII and CAN. A number of device makers provide parts and kits to help get you started. With standardized connectors, messaging protocols, and signaling levels, there is nothing stopping engineers from fully utilizing the car’s computers to add features, functionality, or to improve performance or economy.

For further information on the parts discussed in this article, use the links provided to access product pages on the Digi-Key website.

Disclaimer: The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the various authors and/or forum participants on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints of Digi-Key Electronics or official policies of Digi-Key Electronics.

About this author

Jon Gabay

About this publisher

Electronic Products

Electronic Products magazine and serves engineers and engineering managers responsible for designing electronic equipment and systems.