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World's First Microcomputer for Automotive Engine

Ford unexpectedly sends Toshiba request to join project related to the US Clean Air Act.

World's First Microcomputer for Automotive Engine

In the 1970s, semiconductors rapidly replaced electronic tubes in general machinery and equipment control. Although automobile control still depended mostly on mechanical parts, the industry was expected to join the semiconductor era before long. At the time, Toshiba had a close relationship with Ford for the supply of rectifier diodes for automobile AC alternators. In March 1971, Ford unexpectedly sent a set bulky specifications asking Toshiba to join a project to make an electronic engine control (EEC) in response to US Clean Air Act (sometimes known as the Muskie Act). The project had begun six month before and RCA and Motorola were already conducting a feasibility study.

Ford's request came with only simple specifications for the electronic engine control, and Toshiba had to exert considerable effort to meet their request. Toshiba presented several proposals and Ford was most interested in Toshiba's microcomputer engine control. At the time however, Intel's 4-bit microprocessor has just come out, and Digital Equipment Corporation's minicomputer (PDP-11) was popular but expensive at USD10,000. It was 1.8m tall and 80cm in width and depth, and an air-conditioned room was necessary for installation. However, Ford wanted a microcomputer as capable as DEC's, at only USD100, and wanted it to fit in a limited area of the engine room and operate in conditions of severe vibration and heavy temperature fluctuation. For this company-wide project, Toshiba hastily organized a special development team in the electronic division to start building an LSI microcomputer. The first hurdle was a functionality test at Detroit, US. Thanks to the extensive effort of Toshiba's system designers, a -box-sized bread board was completed in summer of that year, and the breadboard was combined with Ford's equipment to conduct an on-vehicle test. The trunk of the initial test vehicle was filled with the engine control system.

The next step was to build an LSI circuit based upon the breadboard design. Those was successfully done by LSI process team worked day and night without CAD software or other automated tools, and without any failure succeeded in putting the LSI computer system into operation.

The next issue was mass production of the LSI. Due to the economic downturn caused by the first oil crisis, and the relaxation of the Muskie Act by US Congress, Toshiba had to make a decision on whether to begin mass production of the LSI or not, without receiving a formal order from Ford. As Ford had not made a firm commitment yet, much criticism was madeat those wishing to continue the project. However, Toshio Doko, chairman at that time, made the final decision to continue the project, and production began. The product passed all kind of heavy durability tests in 1976, and the company started to supply computers the next year. The electronic engine control was first incorporated into Ford's Lincoln Versailles and was afterwards adopted in many other models. The development of the electronic control engine (EEC) opened a new era in automotive electronics.

Breadboard mounted in the trunk

Breadboard mounted in the trunk

Automotive engine control module

Automotive engine control module

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