A short history of standardization and CAN

Standards might be boring to read about, but we couldn’t do without them. Without standards modern civilization would be much more difficult, costly, and hazardous, because we didn’t standardize the fire hydrants.


Standards help things interconnect more easily. Courtesy: Can in Automation (CiA)We all know that standards are boring to read, but we can't work without them. It's especially dull to read standards that were not made for your needs. For example, the ISO 11898 series is written for chipmakers who want to implement the Controller Area Network (CAN) protocol. Users should not read them. To save time, buy one of the helpful books on the topic or to search for articles and basic information on the Internet.

The CAN protocol has been internationally standardized since 1993 in the ISO 11898 standard. These days, all basic CAN standards are under review. The ISO 11898-1 standard will be upgraded to include the CAN FD protocol extension. The ISO 11898-2 high-speed transceiver standard and its younger sisters ISO 11898-5 (low-power mode) and ISO 11898-6 (selective wake-up transceivers) are going to be merged into a single ISO document to make them consistent and easier to maintain.

We do need a shared way of communication so that different implementations can exchange messages. The same is true for human languages. If we didn't agree on paper and envelope formats as well as character sets, we couldn't communicate through mail. There would be no normed keyboards and no letters that could be read without an interpreter. 

The history of standardization in a nutshell

Standardization is as old as interactions within larger human communities. The first Chinese emperor, Qin Shi Huang (260 to 210 BC), standardized not only the Chinese characters, but also the system of units and measurements as well as the currency and the width of cart axles.

War has often driven standardization. More than 2,500 years ago, Heraclitus stated: "War is the father and king of all." In the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), one of the reasons for the Union's victory against the South was the standardization of its rail tracks. The problem was the difference in track gauges. The Confederate rail network was mostly in the broad gauge format; only North Carolina and Virginia had standard gauge lines. Southern railroads west of the Mississippi widely differed in gauge, making them isolated and disconnected. During the Civil War, the Union government recognized the military and economic advantages of having a standardized track gauge. The government worked with the railroads to promote use of the most common railroad gauge in the U.S. at the time, which measured 4 ft and 8½ in., a track size that originated in England. This gauge was mandated for use in the Transcontinental Railroad in 1864 and by 1886 had become the U.S. standard.

Another example of standardization during wars is standardized rifle parts, making them interchangeable between guns. This was a revolutionary idea from Thomas Jefferson and Eli Whitney, who was a mechanical engineer in the late 18th century. Likewise, the foundation of the predecessor of the DIN (German standardization body) in 1917 had a military background. The German industry wanted to optimize production during World War I (1914 to 1918) because it was in a material battle between Germany and France.

There are also civil examples of standardization benefits. In 1904, a fire broke out in Baltimore. Reinforcements from New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, came to Baltimore to combat the flames. After they arrived, they realized that their fire hoses could not be connected to the fire hydrants. With the lesson learned, the U.S. started many standardization projects. In 1904, the ANSI (American National Standards Institute) was established. A few years earlier, the British Standardization Institute (BSI) had been founded as well.

An increase in international business that demanded worldwide standardization led to the birth of the IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission). Its inaugural meeting was held in 1906. Originally located in London (UK), the commission moved to its current headquarters in Geneva in 1948. A year earlier, 25 countries founded the ISO (International Standardization Organization) to deal with all the "non-electrical" standards. The ISO predecessor had already been established in 1926, but it was suspended during World War II. Today, the division of labor is more or less history, because electrical equipment is used in many industries and needs to be standardized. ISO standardizes electronics too, especially for the industries that have non-electrical roots. That is why CAN is standardized by the automotive technical committees of ISO; originally, cars were not defined as electric and electronics.

ISO is a voluntary organization whose members are recognized authorities on standards, with each one representing one country. Members meet annually at a General Assembly to discuss the ISO's strategic objectives. The Central Secretariat coordinates the standardization activities and publishes the ISO standards. There are 250 technical committees and thousands of subcommittees, working groups, and task forces.

The IEC has a similar number of technical workers. Some 10,000 electrical and electronics experts from industry, government, academia, test labs, and others with an interest in the subject develop the standards. IEC standards have numbers in the range from 60000 to 79999. The IEC is made up of members, called national committees (NCs). Each NC represents its nation's electro-technical interests. 

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