Jack Greenberg

Controller Area Network Software Update

On Olin’s Formula SAE team, I built a vehicle software update system consisting of a custom bootloader and an application protocol that uses the CAN protocol for its physical and data-link layer.

State diagram for the software update system

State diagram for the software update system


The system, referred to as btldr, allows engineers to update any ECU on the vehicle without physical access to the hardware. The bootloader is responsible for initializing the CAN protocol stack and reacting to the commands issued by the host. It also handles image validation by performing a cyclic-redunancy check and refusing to run the image if corruption has occured.

The entire bootloader takes up less than 4 kilobytes of space on the device, making it light-weight while still maintaining robustness.

Application Protocol

The btldr utilizes a custom protocol for initializing and conducting the update. There are 4 different message types:

  • Ping: Checks device reachability, current firmware version, and updater compatibility
  • Request Update: Initialize an update session for a particular ECU
  • Data: Contains a chunk of the binary being flashed
  • Reset: Instructs the device to check the validity of the image and begin executing if it is valid

Each of these commands has an associated response message that is sent by the target device to acknowledge and/or provide additional data to the host.


The bootloader portion of the system is a 4 kilobyte program that executes whenever the device resets. It first checks an EEPROM memory bank that is shared with the application section to see if an update has been requested, and, if so, initializes the protocol stack.

It then listens for specific CAN messages and acts according to the commands it receives.


Historically on the Formula team, ECU firmware updates required a group of engineers to open up various enclosures and unplug PCBs from around the car and manually recompile and flash code using a programming dongle. This is highly inefficient and costs valuable time to the engineers. The motivation behind this project is to provide a streamlined method for updating vehicle firmware that only requires a single point of physical access to the car.

Future Steps

Many automotive OEMs are recognizing a need for over-the-air (OTA) software updates, especially as more and more embedded systems for electric vehicles are being introduced for things like safety and autonomy. As a learning experiment, I hope to integrate a Wi-Fi-based OTA updater component to the vehicle, which would allow it to be updated remotely.

With the addition of remote access comes the necessity for security. An unsecured software update mechanism could allow malicious actors to introduce dangerous code to a vehicle. In addition to wireless access, I also hope to create a secure software update system which uses code-signing to verify the integrity and origin of the code.

Detailed project documentation—including deep-dives into the different technologies and methods used to build the tool—can be found here.