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An engine control unit (ECU), also known as power-train control module (PCM), or engine control module (ECM) is a type of electronic control unit that determines the amount of fuel, ignition timing and other parameters an internal combustion engine needs to keep running. It does this by reading values from multidimensional performance maps (so called LUTs), using input values (e.g. engine speed) calculated from signals coming from sensor devices monitoring the engine. Before ECU's, air/fuel mixture, ignition timing, and idle speed were directly controlled by mechanical and pneumatic sensors and actuators. One of the very first attempts to use such a unitized and automated "ECU" device to manage multiple engine control functions simultaneously was created by BMW in 1939, for their BMW 801 14-cylinder aviation engine, and known as the Kommandogerät, operated only by a single throttle lever.

For an engine with fuel injection, an engine control unit (ECU) will determine the quantity of fuel to inject based on a number of parameters. If the throttle pedal is pressed further down, this will open the throttle body and allow more air to be pulled into the engine. The ECU will inject more fuel according to how much air is passing into the engine. If the engine has not warmed up yet, more fuel will be injected (causing the engine to run slightly 'rich' until the engine warms up).
Mixture control on computer controlled carburetors works similarly but with a mixture control solenoid or stepper motor incorporated in the float bowl of the carburetor.

A spark ignition engine requires a spark to initiate combustion in the combustion chamber. An ECU can adjust the exact timing of the spark (called ignition timing) to provide better power and economy. If the ECU detects knock, a condition which is potentially destructive to engines, and "judges" it to be the result of the ignition timing being too early in the compression stroke, it will delay (retard) the timing of the spark to prevent this. A second, more common source, cause, of knock/ping is operating the engine in too low of an RPM range for the "work" requirement of the moment. In this case the knock/ping results from the piston not being able to move downward as fast as the flame front is expanding, but this latter mostly applies only to manual transmission equipped vehicles. The ECU controlling an automatic transmission would simply downshift the transmission if this were the cause of knock/ping...........