I spy CAN: a long list of controller area network applications

In-vehicle networking: autonomous driving adds another layer of electronics to cars that already contain numerous ECUs. Image credit – Continental / NAV Alliance

Controller area networks can be found in a variety of systems and devices from cars to coffee machines, as James Tyrrell — a Threat Modelling Analyst at Secure-CAV consortium member Copper Horse — highlights in his latest update.

How many different products can you name that feature a CAN bus? We’ve already touched on the importance of controller area networks in automobiles, but it’s not just road vehicles that benefit from the popular broadcast message system. Today, the platform includes both Classic CAN and CAN FD plus a number of higher-level protocols such as CANopen and CANopen-LIFT, which have proven to be a big hit with developers. Here’s a list of applications to get you started, arranged alphabetically with linked examples:

Food & Drink
Industrial machines

Military controller area networks have their own higher layer protocol dubbed MilCAN. The specification gives developers access to three latency guarantees – hard real time, soft real time and non real time – within the messaging structure.

Space exploration
  • Weaving machines
  • Knitting systems

Scrolling down, the list of applications is a long one. In fact, CAN is so popular that it has its own annual conference and newsletter/magazine. But the story doesn’t end there.


Work is underway on the latest iteration of CAN, dubbed CAN XL, which has a data field of up to 2048 bytes, compared with a maximum of 8 bytes for Classical CAN (released in 1986) and 64 bytes for CAN FD (introduced in 2012). The upcoming protocol will also have the ability to run up to 256 virtual networks on one single CAN XL network segment. Security too could be enhanced thanks to an optional protocol known as CADsec, which is under consideration and targets the data link layer. The approach is based on a 4-byte header containing cipher control information, the CAN secure channel ID and a freshness value. The scheme also features a 128-bit authentication tag contained within the 16 byte message trailer.

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