Message frame format

Message frame for standard format (CAN Specification 2.0A)
Message frame for standard format (CAN Specification 2.0A)

The CAN protocol supports two message frame formats, the only essential difference being in the length of the identifier (ID). In the standard format the length of the ID is 11 bits and in the extended format the length is 29 bits. The message frame for transmitting messages on the bus comprises seven main fields.

A message in the standard format begins with the start bit "start of frame", this is followed by the "arbitration field", which contains the identifier and the "RTR" (remote transmission request) bit, which indicates whether it is a data frame or a request frame without any data bytes (remote frame). The "control field" contains the IDE (identifier extension) bit, which indicates either standard format or extended format, a bit reserved for future extensions and - in the last 4 bits - a count of the data bytes in the data field. The "data field" ranges from 0 to 8 bytes in length and is followed by the "CRC field", which is used as a frame security check for detecting bit errors. The "ACK field" comprises the ACK slot (1 bit) and the ACK delimiter (1 recessive bit). The bit in the ACK slot is sent as a recessive bit and is overwritten as a dominant bit by those receivers which have at this time received the data correctly (positive acknowledgement). Correct messages are acknowledged by the receivers regardless of the result of the acceptance test. The end of the message is indicated by "end of frame". "Intermission" is the minimum number of bit periods separating consecutive messages. If there is no following bus access by any station, the bus remains idle ("bus idle").

Detecting and signalling errors

Unlike other bus systems, the CAN protocol does not use acknowledgement messages but instead signals any errors that occur.

Cyclic Redundancy Check (CRC)

The CRC safeguards the information in the frame by adding redundant check bits at the transmission end. At the receiver end these bits are re-computed and tested against the received bits. If they do not agree there has been a CRC error.

Frame check

This mechanism verifies the structure of the transmitted frame by checking the bit fields against the fixed format and the frame size. Errors detected by frame checks are designated "format errors".

ACK errors

As mentioned above, frames received are acknowledged by all recipients through positive acknowledgement. If no acknowledgement is received by the transmitter of the message (ACK error) this may imply that there is a transmission error which has been detected only by the recipients, that the ACK field has been corrupted or that there are no receivers.

The CAN protocol also implements two mechanisms for error detection at the bit level:


The ability of the transmitter to detect errors is based on the monitoring of bus signals: each node which transmits also observes the bus level and thus detects differences between the bit sent and the bit received. This permits reliable detection of all global errors and errors local to the transmitter.

Bit stuffing

The coding of the individual bits is tested at bit level. The bit representation used by CAN is NRZ (non-return-to-zero) coding, which guarantees maximum efficiency in bit coding. The synchronization edges are generated by means of bit stuffing, i.e. after five consecutive equal bits the sender inserts into the bit stream a stuff bit with the complementary value, which is removed by the receivers. The code check is limited to checking adherence to the stuffing rule.

If one or more errors are discovered by at least one station (any station) using the above mechanisms, the current transmission is aborted by sending an "error flag". This prevents other stations accepting the message and thus ensures the consistency of data throughout in the network.

After transmission of an erroneous message has been aborted, the sender automatically re-attempts transmission (automatic repeat request). There may again be competition for bus allocation. As a rule, retransmission will be begun within 23 bit periods after error detection; in special cases the system recovery time is 31 bit periods.

However effective and efficient the described method may be, in the event of a defective station it might lead to all messages (including correct ones) being aborted, thus blocking the bus system if no measures for self-monitoring were taken. The CAN protocol therefore provides a mechanism for distinguishing sporadic errors from permanent errors and localizing station failures (fault confinement).

This is done by statistical assessment of station error situations with the aim of recognizing a station's own defects and possibly entering an operating mode where the rest of the CAN network is not negatively affected. This may go as far as the station switching itself off to prevent messages erroneously recognized as incorrect from being aborted.

Extended format CAN messages

The SAE "Truck and Bus" subcommittee standardized signals and messages as well as data transmission protocols for various data rates. It became apparent that standardization of this kind is easier to implement when a longer identification field is available.

To support these efforts, the CAN protocol was extended by the introduction of a 29-bit identifier. This identifier is made up of the existing 11-bit identifier (base ID) and an 18-bit extension (ID extension). Thus the CAN protocol allows the use of two message formats:

  • StandardCAN ( Version 2.0A ) und
  • ExtendedCAN ( Version 2.0B )

As the two formats have to coexist on one bus it is laid down which message has higher priority on the bus in the case of bus access collisions with differing formats and the same base identifier:


the message in standard always has priority over the message in extended format.

Message frame standard format (CAN specification 2.0A)

CAN controllers which support the messages in extended format can also send and receive messages in standard format. When CAN controllers which only cover the standard format (Version 2.0A) are used on one network, then only messages in standard format can be transmitted on the entire network. Messages in extended format would be misunderstood. However there are CAN controllers which only support standard format but recognize messages in extended format and ignore them (Version 2.0B passive).

The distinction between standard format and extended format is made using the IDE bit (Identifier Extension Bit) which is transmitted as dominant in the case of a frame in standard format. For frames in extended format it is recessive.

The RTR bit is transmitted dominant or recessive depending on whether data are being transmitted or whether a specific message is being requested from a station. In place of the RTR bit in standard format the SRR (substitute remote request) bit is transmitted for frames with extended ID. The SRR bit is always transmitted as recessive, to ensure that in the case of arbitration the standard frame always has priority bus allocation over an extended frame when both messages have the same base identifier.

Message frame for extended format (CAN specification 2.0B)

Unlike the standard format, in the extended format the IDE bit is followed by the 18-bit ID extension, the RTR bit and a reserved bit (r1).

All the following fields are identical with standard format. Conformity between the two formats is ensured by the fact that the CAN controllers which support the extended format can also communicate in standard format.

Implementations of the CAN protocol

Communication is identical for all implementations of the CAN protocol. There are differences, however, with regard to the extent to which the implementation takes over message transmission from the microcontrollers which follow it in the circuit.