Controller Area Network

Definition of Controller Area Network

Controller Area Network (CAN) is a communication protocol designed for allowing various electronic devices and components within a vehicle or automation system to communicate with each other effectively. Developed by Bosch in the 1980s, CAN enables efficient data transmission with built-in error detection and correction mechanisms, making it highly reliable and widely used in automotive, industrial, and embedded applications. By reducing wiring complexity and enabling real-time communication between devices, the CAN protocol improves overall system functionality and performance.


The phonetic pronunciation of “Controller Area Network” is:kənˈtroʊlər ˈɛəriə ˈnɛtˌwɜrk

Key Takeaways

  1. Controller Area Network (CAN) is a robust communication protocol used for the efficient and reliable transmission of data between different Electronic Control Units (ECUs) in an automotive system, industrial automation, and other applications.
  2. CAN operates on a multi-master, priority-based arbitration mechanism, allowing messages with higher priority to be transmitted first without the need for any central processing unit. This ensures faster response times and reduced message collisions.
  3. Since it follows a two-wire differential bus topology, CAN achieves high resistance to noise and provides built-in error detection mechanisms, which makes it a highly reliable and fault-tolerant communication network.

Importance of Controller Area Network

The technology term Controller Area Network (CAN) is important because it serves as a robust, efficient, and flexible communication protocol designed for use in microcontrollers within automotive and industrial systems.

Developed in the early 1980s by Bosch, CAN enables multiple electronic control units (ECUs) to communicate with each other in real-time through a single, two-wire interface—reducing the need for complex wiring harnesses and enhancing overall reliability.

Its fault-tolerant nature and priority-based message arbitration allow for the streamlined management of distributed control tasks, while ensuring critical signals are prioritized in a timely manner.

Today, CAN remains a significant part of embedded systems and has been widely adopted beyond automotive applications, making it an essential component in industries such as aerospace, maritime, and industrial automation.


The Controller Area Network, commonly referred to as CAN, is a robust communication protocol developed specifically for the high reliability requirements of automotive and industrial environments. The primary purpose of a CAN is to facilitate a seamless exchange of information between various devices connected within a network while eliminating the need for redundant wiring, reducing the complexity of the overall system.

This communication network typically consists of Electronic Control Units (ECUs), sensors, and actuators, which communicate with each other to efficiently monitor and control various functions in a vehicle, including engine management, transmission, braking system, and other safety features. Apart from its application within the automotive industry, the CAN protocol has found broad relevance in various other sectors, such as aerospace, maritime, home automation, and even medical equipment.

Its use in these domains can be attributed to the protocol’s inherent features that ensure system-wide fault tolerance, noise immunity, and real-time data transmission. By centralizing the system’s control and streamlining the communication process, the CAN technology contributes significantly to the overall effectiveness and reliability of complex interconnected systems.

This enables designers and manufacturers to develop sophisticated, high-performance devices while minimizing the costs, space, and maintenance requirements associated with traditional wiring arrangements.

Examples of Controller Area Network

Automotive Industry: In modern cars, the Controller Area Network (CAN) technology plays a vital role in the communication between various Electronic Control Units (ECUs) such as engine control modules, transmission control, anti-lock braking systems, airbags, and infotainment systems. It enables real-time data exchange, optimized performance, better diagnostics, and improved fuel efficiency. For example, the CAN bus in a car allows different parts of the vehicle to communicate with each other for better coordination and performance.

Industrial Automation: In industrial automation, CAN technology is widely used for communication among various automation devices such as PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers), sensors, actuators, and human-machine interfaces. It ensures reliable communication across different nodes in a distributed control system, enabling efficient process control, monitoring, and improved safety. For example, CANopen, a higher-layer protocol based on CAN, is used in applications like conveyor systems, packaging machines, and robotics within factory floors.

Smart Grids and Utilities: CAN technology is employed in smart grids and utilities infrastructure to achieve efficient monitoring and management of power generation, distribution, and consumption systems. It helps in communication between smart meters, grid control units, and other smart appliances, providing real-time data for effective load management and optimization of resources. For example, a power distribution system might use CAN-based communication to monitor the overall network status and coordinate the control of substations, transformers, and capacitors efficiently.

Controller Area Network (CAN) – FAQ

Q1: What is a Controller Area Network (CAN)?

A Controller Area Network (CAN) is a communication protocol used primarily in the automotive and industrial sectors. It allows multiple electronic control units (ECUs) and devices within a system to communicate efficiently and reliably, simplifying the wiring and reducing the weight and size of devices.

Q2: How does CAN communication work?

CAN communication operates using a message-based protocol, transmitting messages as ‘frames’. The frames contain an identifier, called arbitration ID, and data packets. It utilizes a multi-master model, where multiple nodes or devices on the network have equal priority and can all send and receive messages simultaneously.

Q3: What are some advantages of using CAN protocols?

Some advantages of using CAN protocols include improved efficiency and reliability of communication between devices, reduction in wiring complexity, and fault tolerance. CAN protocols are also less susceptible to electromagnetic interference, providing higher safety and reliability of data transmission.

Q4: What industries commonly use CAN networks?

CAN networks are widely used in the automotive industry, as well as in industrial automation, aerospace, maritime, and medical applications. In vehicles, CAN networks manage communication between various electronic systems, such as engine management systems, airbags, and diagnostic tools.

Q5: Can I use a CAN network for my custom project?

Yes, you can use a CAN network for your custom projects, as long as your devices support the CAN protocol. Many microcontrollers have built-in CAN support, and there are also CAN transceivers available as separate components for integration with non-CAN devices. Be sure to consult the documentation of your specific hardware for compatibility and integration guidelines.

Related Technology Terms

  • CAN Protocol
  • Bus Topology
  • Message Frame
  • Error Detection
  • Node Addressing

Sources for More Information

Technology Glossary

Table of Contents

More Terms