Electrical vs. Electronics: Do You Know The Difference?

Dr. Engineer Port Angeles, Washington Posted   Latest  

Hi Everyone:

As we quickly move into Vehicle Electrification and Autonomous vehicle systems (and beyond), vehicles have become more rolling Electronics and Firmware/Software products with wire (Electrical circuits) that connects controllers to their input and output circuits. From an engineering perspective, Engineers completely understand the differences between Electrical, Electronics, and Firmware/Software. However, in the automotive service space, it is less understood and there appears to be a blending of the terms Electrical and Electronics. For decades, I've read automotive training course titles and/or descriptions that indicate course content of "Automotive Electronic Circuits/Systems or "Electronics" or, "Control Systems" etc. will be covered (i.e., such as, sensors, Inputs/Outputs, controllers, etc. Well, let's put this to the litmus test. 

Initially, this generated a few question for me and hopefully for you:

  1. From a rhetorical perspective, do you know the difference between Electrical and Electronics? 
  2. From a technology point of view (from the perspective of an automotive technician), do you interface directly with Electronic circuits or Electrical circuits when working with vehicle systems?
  3. When an Automotive topic indicates in its description that, it will cover electronics, does your experience indicate these courses actually cover Electronic devices and the associated circuits? Or, does the course casually/minimally mention Electronic devices and firmware/software control circuits, and the majority of the course actually covers the electrical connection of these circuits and study the measurements of them (with a DVOM, Scope, Scan Tool PIDs, etc.). 

In general, and from a technological point of view, automotive technicians DO NOT interface directly with Electronic circuits or components. I'm sure there are a scant few that may actually perform real Electronics diagnostics but, the majority of Automotive technicians interface indirectly with electronic circuits (i.e., controller I/O, switches, CAN network lines, electrical connectors, electrical terminals, etc.). Automotive technicians monitor Electrical circuits ( I/O, etc.) with a DVOM, Scope or, Scan Tool or manipulate a circuit by using a jumper wire to ground or power an I/O, signal generator, etc. to change a circuit behavior. In fundamental terms, automotive technicians measure/control "cause and effect" with Electrical measurement or manipulation, and do not interface directly with the hard core Electronic (decision making) control circuits. I would define indirectly as measuring the Input (going into an Electronic circuit) or an Output (signals exiting an Electronic circuit). Automotive technicians don't interface directly with what happens in between the Input and Output (i.e., logic circuits, signal conditioning, filters, amplification, comparators, internal signal generators, voltage translation, embedded controllers or systems controllers, firmware, software......and the list goes on). Programming a controller would also not be defined as working with firmware or software. It would be defined as downloading/uploading software calibrations (and, in a small percentage of cases, actual software changes). Therefore, by definition, automotive technicians interface directly with Electrical circuits that upload or download software/firmware content. In summary, Automotive technicians do not perform changes/modifications in the hard core software/firmware content as part of performing a reprogramming event. I'm not minimizing the fact that, programming can be a pain in the @$$ because, it can be a real pain!

I've attached a short article that, from a very high level, compares/contrasts the differences between Electrical and Electronic circuits. What hasn't been broached in this post (or the attached article) is Software or Firmware and interface circuits that contain the decision making capability (from Inputs) to control the electronic devices that an automotive technician would see as an Electrical Output. Although it's difficult to separate Electronics from Firmware or Software in contemporary systems, this could be a discussion for another day.

In closing, this post is not meant to spark debate or raise the ire of those that read and post here because, there is no debate when facts form the thesis. It's meant to distinguish perception from reality and begin to recognize the proper categorization of technology disciplines. In my opinion, automotive service field has been lax in describing the application of technologies and needs to become more diligent.

In closing, at the beginning of this post, I asked 3 questions. Have you honestly answered them?

Cheers and all the best to Everyone!

Mark

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Dmitriy Analyst
Toronto, Ontario
Dmitriy Default
 

Oh, I know, I know, the first one is an adjective, and the other is a noun! On a more serious note, these are definitions in the Oxford English dictionary: diag​.​net/file/f35jsfhyg… ​ diag​.​net/file/f4b4kcj8c… ​ According to these, one or more transistors make it an electronic circuit, otherwise it is only electrical. Nothing is said about "decision making…

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Steven Instructor
Cumming, Georgia
Steven Default
 

Dmitriy and Dr. Quarto, Interesting points and good discussion! I suppose some us first learned about "electronics" when diodes were placed in alternators, with a controlling electronic regulator. I remember when the first mass produced "electronic ignition systems" first came out, we had to learn about power transistors. We learned how they worked and how to manipulate them externally. I…

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Rudy Technician
Montebello, California
Rudy Default
   

Im not sure Im following you. Why did you post a google search of dictionary definitions? Is his definition incorrect as it applies to our trade?

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Dr. Engineer
Port Angeles, Washington
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Hi Rudy: Great to hear from you! Yes, I googled many sites and sifted them to find one that fit with what I was trying to communicate. Yes, this definition applies to our trade. Whether a technician interfaces with a sensor, the controller, etc. it's always on the I/O. The Electronics (and any Firmware) sits in between what the technician typically measures on a DVOM, Scope or sees on a Scan…

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Hollis Technician
Boulder, Colorado
Hollis Default
 

> Since the Diagnostic Net was meant to be a site where more technical aspects of automotive could be discussed, and become an area of where engineers and technicians could have a meeting of the >minds, I thought lighter topics like this one may be a good place to start initiating change. Thank You and I hope you stick around.

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Rudy Technician
Montebello, California
Rudy Default
 

Agreed!

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Rudy Technician
Montebello, California
Rudy Default
   

Sorry Mark, I was responding to Dmitriy,since he felt it was necessary to put up Google definitions of the words. I wasn't sure if he was being facetious or had an actual point to make. Very much appreciate the input from you though!!

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Maynard Technician
Elmira, Ontario
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Yes Mark, stick around please, and convince some of your buddies to start posting too! Andrew says hi . And as for the intermediate level.... i hope too to be taking that sometime. We have just now purchased an ADAS calibration unit.... hoping that will sink us into all kinds of electronic troubles that need solving :)

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Dmitriy Analyst
Toronto, Ontario
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Rudy, I am absolutely serious. I believe starting with proper unified definitions avoids confusion and introducing endless clarifications later on. You can read an excellent reply above by Steven Jordan, where he talks about how term "electronic" came to be and how it got first introduced into automotive service. It had quite a specific meaning -- having an active semiconductor inside -- and…

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Paul Diagnostician
Groton, Connecticut
Paul Default
 

When I described electronics vs simple electrical, I used the phrases discreet circuit vs an integrated circuit as well. Should we start a discussion about how positive ground is really the correct way of doing this?

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Dr. Engineer
Port Angeles, Washington
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Hi Dmitriy: FYI.......I'm not the brilliant engineer to whom you referred but, I did go to the IEEE site today to acquire the definitions of electrical and electronics. As a member, I can get into the bowels of their standards, tech papers, definitions and terms documents, etc. When I got there, I was inundated with hundreds of documents and was overwhelmed by the number of titles for each area…

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Hollis Technician
Boulder, Colorado
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Add this to your reading list (you're probably already on it) and thanks for starting this topic. training​.​ti​.​com/riding-out-aut…

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Dmitriy Analyst
Toronto, Ontario
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Sorry for not replying sooner -- I was on a wilderness trip and then had to catch up on a few projects. Thank you for trying to look up the definitions on IEEE website -- it is quite disappointing to learn that they are next to impossible to find (if they exist at all in the official form). "Second-hand definitions" from sites like AllAboutCircuits​.​com are food for thought, but…

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Maynard Technician
Elmira, Ontario
Maynard Default
 

Good stuff Mark, thanks for posting. In recent times I have come to believe that when we download or upload software to a vehicle, (modifying the calibration) however we choose to explain it, we are actually modifying the firmware rather than the software, is this correct? And every time i recommend "updating the the Pcm/Bcm/etc software to latest level it kinda chafes on me to be calling it…

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Dr. Engineer
Port Angeles, Washington
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Hi Maynard: I hope all has been well with you since last we met at the course in Seattle. I'll try to respond to your comments/questions in an abbreviated format so it doesn't drone on forever. First, all of my comments are going to be based upon what can be performed with a Scan Tool, J2534 or some other interface tool (OEM). This isn't something that is going to be done without specific…

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Maynard Technician
Elmira, Ontario
Maynard Default
 

We are well and i will tell Andrew. He has a project going on and i do too, you were definitely the catalyst to get that going :) So i will need to feel that out a little more but your explaination covers it well. It is possible to have calibration file updates in both firmware and software, and that is mostly what we change during a "programming event" Thank you for posting, it is really…

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Dr. Engineer
Port Angeles, Washington
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Maynard: I'm glad to hear that the Software & Electronics Boot Camp experience has served to help catalyze some projects. Hope you and Andrew get a chance to attend the Intermediate class. The intermediate class has module level stuff that works on an I2C bus (similar in some ways to CAN). There are a significant number of ADAS related projects with IR, Ultrasonic, and LIDAR stuff....along…

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Steve Technician
Erie, Pennsylvania
Steve Default
 

Hi Dr. Mark, I would ask you a question. Do you know the difference between Hard Rock and Heavy Metal? These terms have come to mean many things over the years and definitions have evolved. When referring to "electrical" I conjure up images of knob and tube, telegraph, lightning, and when using the super fancy term "electronic" we are talking about what....that fancy transistor radio, a push…

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Hollis Technician
Boulder, Colorado
Hollis Default
 

Knowing the difference from an everyday practical standpoint in relating to effective repairs and problem solving is paramount. While I've only had basic electrical training and basic electronic theory classes, I find keeping abreast of and up on the latest tech in the theories of systems control and systems interdependencies by having a basic understanding of the strategies behind them can take…

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Dr. Engineer
Port Angeles, Washington
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Hollis: Thanx for the reply and insight. Agree with you on many points! Mark

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Dr. Engineer
Port Angeles, Washington
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Hi Steve: Thanks for the posting. No, I don't know the difference between Hard Rock and Heavy Metal (not sure how it applies here) But, I do know the difference between electrical systems and electronic systems.......and there is a BIG difference. Hence, the reason for my posting. The automotive service industry may not know the difference but, the electrical and electronic industries do. And…

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Paul Diagnostician
Groton, Connecticut
Paul Default
 

I have to ask do you close every post with," In close, this is not meant to spark a debate as there is no debate when fact forms the thesis."? At vocational technical school, I took Electronics to learn about DC electrical circuits for years. Some friends took Electrical, to learn how to wire AC in houses. My family also ran an Auto Electric shop for 23 years. ElecTRONS, make electricity work…

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Dr. Engineer
Port Angeles, Washington
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Hi Paul: Thanks for the reply. Although I don't agree that "all of it really is electronics" (and that was the point of my initial post), I'm glad to hear that you've taken some additional course work on DC stuff. It all helps. Mark

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Dr. Engineer
Port Angeles, Washington
Dr. Default
 

Paul: If you get a chance, check out the IEEE definitions of electrical and electronics. There is a stark difference between the two. Mark

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Rudy Technician
Montebello, California
Rudy Default
 

So are you saying they are the same thing?

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Dr. Engineer
Port Angeles, Washington
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Rudy: Electronics and Electrical are NOT the same thing, not even close. They are orders of magnitude different. And, with most systems today, it's almost impossible to separate electronics from controllers. Most systems have some level of a microcontroller connected to it and then placed on the CAN bus, I2C bus, etc. Hope this helps...........

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Brian Owner
Parma, Ohio
Brian Default
 

Interesting discussion. I am putting a large amount of effort into the material for a class that I am putting on soon. In reading books on electricity and electronics I found out myself the same point that you brought up. The tag line is simple electrical testing. Not electronics, due to the fact that we are testing the electrical circuits between electronic components. Thanks for…

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Dr. Engineer
Port Angeles, Washington
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Brian: Thanks for the posting. I'm very happy to see that, in preparing for your class, you see the differences in between electrical and electronics. I have many clients that are OEM, Tier 1 or Tier 2, and I provide engineering consulting to them. These groups have complete understanding of the differences between electrical systems, electronic systems, Software, Firmware, etc. And, they…

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Robert Owner
Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
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Interestingly, I was introduced to both electrical circuits and electronics when I was in college in the 1960s. At that point in time, "electronics" was in its infancy and I was involved in a co-op work project that focused on miniaturizing circuitry from vacuum tubes to semiconductors. Still have my textbooks, some of which were AFMs (Air Force Manuals) and I have utilized this knowledge many…

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Dr. Engineer
Port Angeles, Washington
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Bob. Thank you for the comments. Looking forward to working with you in a couple weeks. It’s going to be s lot of fun! Mark

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Martin Instructor
Burnaby, British Columbia
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Hi Mark. Good points, in an area that is grey enough at the technician level that it blends together, even though using the term "electronics" may be stretching the depth of technician exposure to physical interface with the electronics. I hold a similar view regarding the use of terms, "basic" and "advanced" electrical courses. My perspective, is that use of "electronics" and "advanced" tends…

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Dr. Engineer
Port Angeles, Washington
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Martin: Thank you for a thoughtful and cogent response. I agree with your comments a perspectives. Although I spend the majority of my time in the engineering space with systems design, I’m finding that most of the training courses that I’m doing from time-to-time is with more technicians. While I enjoy working with my engineering counterparts, the real need that appears to be accelerating is…

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Martin Instructor
Burnaby, British Columbia
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Thanks for the feedback and thoughts Mark. As a technician and trainer, I can identify and share many similar observations in regard to the technician population. While I originally started out in automotive engineering after following in my Dad's footsteps, I "jumped ship" many years ago. In reference to CAN/Ethernet, the diagnostic skills should be generally be considered quite transferable…

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Jeffrey Mobile Technician
Winthrop Harbor, Illinois
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Hi Dr. Mark. My dream is to own a facility that specializes in automotive diagnostics of electrical and electronics. I perform mobile diagnostics and programming for my area and I see first hand the lack of knowledge with just electrical issues. I feel that I have a decent grasp on electronic circuits with a great understanding of electrical. I am trying to pursue a great understanding of…

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Dr. Engineer
Port Angeles, Washington
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Hi Jeff: Thank you for the response and communicating your goals. Automotive diagnostics has taken a swift turn toward electronics and software, especially in the past 15 years. And, more recently, with the explosion of vehicle electrification and Autonomous systems, it's weighted even heavier. I've been doing the automotive, electrical, electronics, and software thing for the past 37 years…

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Pedro Mechanic
Tacoma, Washington
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Sorry to go way off topic but i live in Washington and was reading about the electronic boot camp whats that about?

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Dr. Engineer
Port Angeles, Washington
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Hi Pedro: Thank you for the question. We can have some conversation about the Software & Electronics Boot Camp and get all of your questions answered. However, let's take it off-line. Please send an email to FutureTech Auto at following address and ask them to forward inquiry to me and I'll be happy to answer all of your questions: … If you plan on attending a Boot…

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