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CAN bus: Speed, Resilience and Safety of Vehicle Communication Systems

CAN Bus Vehicle Safety
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Vehicle Safety: Message Prioritisation

The purpose of message prioritisation in the CAN bus protocol is to ensure that critical messages are transmitted and received before less critical ones, enhancing the reliability and efficiency of network communication, especially in systems where timing and immediate response are crucial. This feature is particularly important in automotive and industrial control systems, where the timely processing of certain information can be critical to safety and operational efficiency.

In the CAN bus system, each message is assigned a unique identifier that not only identifies the content and source of the message but also determines its priority level. The lower the numerical value of the identifier, the higher the priority of the message. This scheme allows messages to be prioritised based on their importance to the system’s operation.

Here are some of the key benefits and reasons for implementing message prioritisation in the CAN bus protocol:

Real-Time Performance

  • Ensures that messages critical to system performance or safety are transmitted with minimal delay, which is essential for real-time control and decision-making processes.

Efficient Use of Bandwidth

  • By prioritising messages, the system ensures that bandwidth is allocated first to the most important messages, optimising the use of network resources.

Reduced Collision and Latency

  • The CAN protocol uses a non-destructive arbitration method to handle access to the bus. When two nodes attempt to transmit at the same time, the node with the lower priority message automatically ceases its transmission, allowing the higher priority message to proceed without collision, thereby reducing transmission latency.

Enhanced System Reliability and Safety

  • Critical system warnings or operational commands can be given precedence over routine data exchanges, which is particularly important in environments where safety and fast response times are paramount.


  • Message prioritisation allows the CAN bus system to scale efficiently as more nodes or different types of data transmissions are added. The system can continue to function effectively, managing the increased complexity without compromising on performance.

In summary, message prioritisation is a fundamental aspect of the CAN bus protocol, enabling efficient, reliable, and real-time communication in systems where the order and timing of message delivery can significantly impact system performance and safety.

How Does Message Prioritisation Ensure Safer Driving Systems?

Message prioritisation in the CAN bus system enhances system reliability and safety in several key-ways, particularly in environments where the timely processing of information is critical, such as in automotive and industrial control systems. Here is how it contributes to both reliability and safety:

Timely Response to Critical Events

  • By ensuring that messages with higher priority (such as those signalling emergencies or system malfunctions) are transmitted and received before less critical ones, the system can respond more quickly to situations that could jeopardise safety or operational integrity.

Minimisation of Data Collision and Transmission Errors

  • The CAN bus protocol employs a non-destructive arbitration method that reduces data collision and transmission errors. When two messages are sent simultaneously, the one with the lower priority automatically yields, allowing the higher priority message to be transmitted without interference. This method significantly reduces the risk of critical information being delayed or lost due to collisions, thereby enhancing both the reliability and safety of the system.

Improved System Management During High Load

  • In situations where the network is under heavy load, prioritisation ensures that critical system functions are maintained by giving precedence to messages that are vital for system operation. This capability prevents system overload and ensures that essential functions are not compromised, even in peak conditions.

Prevention of System Failures

  • Prioritisation allows for preventive actions to be taken more swiftly. For example, if a sensor detects a fault that could lead to a system failure, the message containing this information can be given higher priority to ensure that corrective measures are taken as quickly as possible, thereby preventing potential failures.

Enhanced Predictability in Message Handling

  • The deterministic nature of message transmission in CAN systems (due to prioritisation) enhances the predictability of message handling. This predictability is crucial for the design and operation of safety-critical systems, where knowing that messages will be handled in a specific order is essential for ensuring system stability and safety.

Efficient Emergency Management

  • In emergency situations, systems can be programmed to send high-priority messages that trigger immediate responses, such as activating safety mechanisms or shutting down operations to prevent accidents. This fast response capability is critical in preventing or mitigating safety incidents.

Support for Safety-Critical Applications

  • The ability to prioritise messages makes the CAN bus suitable for safety-critical applications, such as brake control systems in vehicles or emergency shutdown systems in industrial settings. These systems rely on the swift and reliable transmission of critical data to operate effectively and safely.

Message prioritisation in the CAN bus system is a fundamental feature that underpins the reliability and safety of numerous applications. It ensures that crucial information is communicated promptly and reliably, even in complex and demanding environments, thereby playing a critical role in safeguarding operational integrity, and protecting lives.

How Does the Concept of a ‘Hub’ Work in this De-Centralised System?

The Controller Area Network (CAN) protocol is widely used in various devices and applications, primarily due to its robustness and efficiency in facilitating communication between multiple microcontrollers and devices without the need for a host computer. Here is a look at the types of devices that use the CAN protocol and the concept of a “hub” in the CAN system.

The “Hub” in CAN Protocol and Operational Systems

Unlike traditional networked communications that might rely on a central hub or switch to manage data traffic, the CAN protocol operates on a multi-master bus architecture. This means there is no single device acting as a central hub. Instead, all devices (nodes) are connected to a common serial bus, and each one can communicate directly with the bus and, therefore, indirectly with all other devices on the network.

How Communication is Managed Without a Hub:

  • Non-Destructive Arbitration: The CAN protocol includes a built-in arbitration system that ensures that in case of simultaneous message transmissions, the message with the highest priority (lowest identifier) gets transmitted first without being corrupted.
  • Error Handling: The CAN protocol has robust error handling mechanisms that allow devices to detect and signal errors, ensuring high reliability of communications.
  • Message Filtering: Devices on a CAN network can be configured to only listen for and act on messages that are relevant to them, reducing unnecessary processing and enhancing efficiency.

In summary, the CAN protocol is utilised across a wide range of devices and applications where reliable, real-time communication is essential. Its architecture does not rely on a traditional hub; instead, it uses a distributed approach where all devices can act as equals in transmitting and receiving messages, making it highly resilient and efficient for complex systems.

Which Specific Component are Typically Used in Vehicles Together with the CAN bus Protocol?

In the automotive sector, the Controller Area Network (CAN) protocol is widely utilised for communication between electronic control units (ECUs) and devices in vehicles. Several devices in the automotive industry rely on the CAN protocol for communication.

Engine Control Module (ECM): 

The Engine Control Module (ECM) oversees functions like fuel injection, ignition timing, and emissions control. It communicates via CAN protocol with other systems to ensure top engine performance.

Transmission Control Unit (TCU): 

This device manages the operation of the vehicle’s transmission, including gear shifting and torque conversion. The TCU communicates with the ECM and other systems to ensure smooth transmission operation.

Anti-lock Braking System (ABS): 

ABS prevents the wheels from locking up during braking to maintain vehicular control. It uses CAN protocols to receive data from wheel speed sensors and to control the brake pressure accordingly.

Airbag Control Unit (ACU): 

The ACU monitors various vehicle sensors to decide when to deploy airbags in the event of a collision. Communication over CAN allows it to rapidly process sensor data and activate airbags when necessary.

Power Steering Control: 

Modern vehicles use electronic power steering, which adjusts the amount of assistance provided based on vehicle speed and steering wheel input. CAN communication enables the power steering control to integrate with other vehicle systems for enhanced driving dynamics.

Body Control Module (BCM): 

The BCM controls various body functions such as door locks, windows, interior lighting, and the alarm system. It communicates with other ECUs over CAN protocol to manage these features efficiently.

Infotainment Systems: 

Modern infotainment systems, which include navigation, audio playback, and connectivity features, use CAN protocol to exchange information with other devices in the vehicle, such as the instrument cluster and mobile devices.

Instrument Cluster: 

The cluster displays critical information to the driver, including speed, fuel level, and warning messages. It receives data from various systems across the vehicle via the CAN bus to ensure the driver is informed of the vehicle’s status.

Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS): 

Systems like adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and collision detection rely on CAN for receiving sensor data and controlling vehicle functions to enhance safety and convenience.

HVAC Systems (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning): 

These systems use CAN protocol to monitor and control the cabin environment based on inputs from temperature sensors and user settings.

The use of CAN in these devices allows for reliable and real-time communication critical for the safety, performance, and convenience features of modern vehicles.

What is the Role of the Instrument Cluster?

The Instrument Cluster plays a crucial role in a vehicle by acting as the primary interface for displaying vital information to the driver. This includes a wide range of data such as vehicle speed, engine rpm (revolutions per minute), fuel level, coolant temperature, and warning indicators for various systems (e.g., oil pressure, battery charge, and brake system warnings). Modern vehicles may also display information related to tire pressure, maintenance needs, and navigation prompts within the instrument cluster. In more advanced setups, it can include multifunction displays that provide real-time data and feedback on the vehicle’s performance, safety features operation (like lane departure warnings), and entertainment information.

How the Instrument Cluster Receives Data from Other Systems

The instrument cluster obtains information from different vehicle systems via the Controller Area Network (CAN) bus, a vehicle bus standard that enables microcontrollers and devices to communicate without a host computer. Here is a basic outline of how it works:

Data Collection: 

Sensors and electronic control units (ECUs) throughout the vehicle continuously monitor and collect data related to their specific functions. For example, wheel speed sensors provide data for the ABS system, the engine control module monitors engine performance parameters, and the fuel level sensor measures the amount of fuel in the tank.

Data Transmission Over CAN Bus: 

The collected data is transmitted over the CAN bus. The CAN protocol facilitates communication between the various ECUs and devices in a vehicle. It is designed to operate at high speeds and with a high level of reliability, which is essential for both performance and safety-critical applications.

Data Reception and Processing: 

The instrument cluster is connected to the CAN bus and receives data transmitted by the other ECUs. It has its own microcontroller that processes this information to determine what should be displayed.

Display to the Driver: 

Finally, the processed data is presented to the driver through the cluster’s various indicators, such as analogue gauges, digital displays, or a combination of both. The presentation of information is designed to be easily understandable immediately to minimise driver distraction.

Conclusion: CAN Bus and Vehicle Safety

In conclusion, the implementation of CAN Bus technology has significantly enhanced vehicle safety standards. By allowing for real-time communication between various vehicle systems, the CAN Bus has enabled quicker detection and response to potential issues on the road. This advanced technology has not only improved driver and passenger safety but has also contributed to the overall efficiency and performance of modern vehicles. As automotive technology continues to evolve, the CAN Bus will undoubtedly play a crucial role in ensuring safer journeys for all road users.

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