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ECM on a Car: What Happens When Your Car’s Computer Goes Bad?

There were 32 million break downs in 2015.

That was a record-breaking figure at the time.

What explains such crazy figures? Surely, with new car technology advancing at a rate of knots, the number of break-downs should be going down!?

In fact, the opposite’s true. Sure, with new tech comes an improved driving experience. But it also has lots of moving parts. That equates to a higher chance of a problem. Equally, complicated systems require complicated solutions.

The average person may lack the know-how to solve things themselves.

For instance, what do you do when the onboard computer system breaks? The ECM is one modern car component that can cause serious issues if left unfixed. You might never know how to fix it yourself. However, you can learn the warning signs to get it sorted early!

Keep reading to learn when the ECM on a car may need fixing.

What’s an ECM?

Let’s take a quick first look at what an ECM actually is.

ECM is short for the engine control module. However, it’s also sometimes referred to as an engine control unit, engine control computer, or (our personal favorite) the powertrain control module (PCM).

Think of it as the brain of your car. It works via sensors to control important elements of the car’s operations.

It helps to control your car’s performance by collecting, monitoring and analyzing all sorts of vital information. The ECM is pivotal in numerous crucial car operations. These include air/fuel ratios, the timing of valves, power output when idle, and the timing of ignition.

With a malfunctioning ECM, your car will struggle in all manner of ways (more in the next section). However, problems can culminate to a point where your car doesn’t even start or run.

6 Signs the ECM on a Car Needs Fixing

Issues with an ECM are often painfully obvious. It could be a Caterpillar ECM, a Ford ECM, or a Cummins ECM. The exact type doesn’t matter. Your car won’t be enjoying itself!

Knowing the signs will help you limit the impact and fix the problem early.

Check out the following 6 signs your ECM has a problem.

1. The Car Engine Stalls or Misfires

Is your engine stalling or misfiring?

There may be no rhyme or reason to it. It just happens at random moments. Engine performance is sure to suffer when the ECM is compromised. Misfires and stalls, where there once was none, can be one symptom of this.

Thankfully, the engine may be fine; the computer alone can cause the problem.

2. The Car Uses More Fuel than Usual

Remember how the ECM has control over the air to fuel ratios and the power output of the car?

Well, a struggling computer can start to burn more fuel than is required. This is because the ECM is in charge of how much fuel is burned during the car’s internal combustion process. Essentially, it gets confused and forgets how to take care of itself.

The result is a higher gas bill at the pump! Running fewer miles to the gallon recently? Get your ECM checked.

3. The Car Doesn’t Start

This one’s worth mentioning again.

An ECM that’s kaput can make your car stop working. Or, more accurately, stop it starting in the first place. A malfunctioning, or totally broken, ECM can’t send electricity to the engine. It may crank a little, but nothing more.

This is something of a worst-case scenario. Keep an eye on the other symptoms and, fingers crossed, you’ll avoid this outcome.

4. The Car Engine’s Performance is Suffering

We’ve already mentioned a couple of engine performance issues.

Reduced fuel efficiency and stalling for example. Oh, and the engine not starting’s a pretty big one too. There’s more joy to be had though. Timing and fuel issues from a faulty ECM can have all manner of effects.

The worst news for all boy racers is the potential loss of power and acceleration. You hit the gas as normal, but fail to accelerate as speedily.

5. The Car’s Check Engine Light Illuminates

Have you noticed the engine’s warning light illuminate of your dash?

If so, this can often be the first sign of a problem with your ECM. Of course, there could be many other reasons the light’s there. In fact, it often shines mistakenly. However, given the importance of your ECM, you can never be too careful.

It’s always worth checking out.

You could scan it for trouble codes yourself, or take it into a professional to take a look. We’d always recommend having a mechanic sort out problems of this nature.

6. The Car’s Got Transmission Issues

Do you drive an automatic?

How are the gear changes going? Any issues? How about jerkiness or stopping? You might have transmission problems. This can be caused by an array of factors including low transmission fluid (click here to learn about more important car fluids to keep an eye on), or poor vehicle upkeep overall.

Get the transmission looked at by a mechanic. If the problem persists afterward, then your ECM may be to blame.

Time to Wrap Up

There you have it: how to know an ECM on a car needs fixing.

Modern cars are breaking down more than ever before. That’s in large part to do with complicated internal technology that the average person has no idea how to fix! After all, complexity can often create more issues.

The ECM is effectively the brain of your vehicle. What could be more complicated than that?!

This essential car part controls crucial performance features. When it breaks, so does your car! You can’t afford for it to breakdown. Thankfully, there are warning signs to look out for long before it goes entirely.

Hopefully, the information above has highlighted some of the most pressing indicators. Be sure to seek support from a mechanic if you notice anything we’ve discussed here!

Did you enjoy this piece? Click here for all of our vehicle maintenance-related articles!