The Three Types of Vehicle Ignition Systems and How They Work

Automobiles have rapidly changed how our society functions, allowing for individuals to travel great distances quickly and with ease. For a vehicle engine to operate successfully, they require an ignition system that is responsible for igniting fuel for the combustion process. While this procedure is typically handled by a spark plug and an electric current, the technology and components that make up the ignition system as a whole may vary from type to type. Since the advent of automobiles, a great number of advancements have been made to ignition systems, and the main types that are commonly used include the distributor automotive ignition system, the distributor-less automotive ignition system, and the coil-on-plug ignition system.

Except for diesel type engines, all automotive engines require spark plug ignition that is provided through ignition coils. To initiate the combustion process to get the engine started, the battery of the car provides voltage through the primary coil, and subsequent collapses of magnetic fields within the coils increases the voltage from 12 volts to 15,000 to 25,000 volts. To ensure that the spark is fired at the correct time, various methods have been created such as mechanical distributors, hybrid distributors, and fully electronic automotive ignition systems.

The distributor automotive ignition system is one in which the camshaft is connected to the gears, and the gears cause the main distributor shaft to revolve. As the shaft spins, ignition points come into contact with a multi-sided cam, and the cam opens and closes the points in order to interrupt flow. This process is what causes the flow of power to the ignition coil, and the voltage travels through the distributor cap to each spark plug wire once fully energized. While the distributor ignition system is sufficient for its provided function, ignition points may break down and lose their precise timing over use, thus causing a need for regular replacement in order to maintain engine efficiency. To remedy this, engineers began implementing solid-state switches which increased  the service life of such parts to around 120,000 miles.

During the 1980’s, many automobile manufacturers began to move away from the distributor ignition system and began utilizing distributor-less ignition systems (DIS). Unlike the distributor ignition system, DIS utilizes two shaft position sensors and a computer in order to set the timing of spark plug ignition. On the front of the crankshaft or near the flywheel, a Crankshaft Position Sensor is placed, and a Camshaft Position Sensor is also mounted onto the camshaft. Together, both sensors oversee the positions of the shafts and relay data to the computer. Additionally, DISs utilize a different assembly of coils, featuring coil packs that produce sparks for two cylinders. Because of this, a greater magnetic field can be produced, resulting in a spark that is around 30,000 volts or more.

The last primary type of ignition system comes in the form of coil-on-plug ignition systems, or COP. COP ignition systems share much of the same electronic controls that are implemented within a DIS, though they utilize a COP coil that operates on one cylinder. Furthermore, COP ignition systems are capable of producing greatly powerful magnetic fields, allowing for sparks that are 40,000 to 50,000 volts. As the coil of the COP is mounted upon the spark plug, cabling is not required and thus less voltage is lost for firing. To protect the coils of a COP ignition system, engine cleaning should be conducted with care, ensuring that water and degreasers do not come into contact with the coils.


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