CAN vs RS485. Comparing Communication Protocols

In the world of industrial and automotive communication, the choice of the right protocol can significantly impact the performance and reliability of a system.

Two of the most widely used communication protocols are CAN (Controller Area Network) and RS485.

CAN – Controller Area Network

CAN is a high-integrity, low-latency serial communication protocol initially designed for automotive applications. It was later adopted by various industries due to its robust and reliable nature.

Developed by Bosch in the 1980s, the CAN protocol uses a multi-master, message-based system. The protocol prioritizes messages based on their identifiers, enabling efficient and deterministic communication between nodes.

Advantages of CAN

  • Error Detection: CAN has built-in error detection mechanisms, making it more reliable in noisy environments.
  • Real-time Performance: With prioritized messages, CAN can provide real-time communication.
  • Flexibility: The multi-master system allows the addition or removal of nodes without affecting the network.

Limitations of CAN

  • Limited Data Rate: CAN typically support data rates up to 1 Mbps, which may not be sufficient for some applications.
  • Restricted Cable Length: As the data rate increases, the maximum cable length decreases.

RS485 – A Balanced Interface

RS485 is a balanced, differential signaling standard used for serial communication. Introduced by the EIA/TIA in the early 1980s, RS485 supports multi-drop configurations and can accommodate up to 32 devices on a single network.

It uses a half-duplex communication scheme, which means that devices can transmit or receive data but not simultaneously.

Advantages of RS485

  • Long Cable Length: RS485 supports cable lengths up to 1200 meters, which is ideal for large installations.
  • Noise Immunity: The differential signaling helps reject common-mode noise, ensuring reliable communication in noisy environments.
  • Scalability: Accommodating multiple devices on a single network makes RS485 a scalable solution.

Limitations of RS485

  • Half-Duplex: RS485’s half-duplex communication limits simultaneous data transmission and reception.
  • No Inherent Error Detection: Unlike CAN, RS485 does not have built-in error detection, relying on higher-level protocols for error handling.

Comparing CAN and RS485

Data Rates

CAN provide data rates up to 1 Mbps, while RS485 can achieve data rates up to 10 Mbps. However, in practice, the actual data rates depend on factors such as cable length, network topology, and environmental conditions.

For applications requiring higher data rates, RS485 may be more suitable, while CAN is often preferred for real-time, safety-critical systems due to its deterministic nature.

Noise Immunity

Both CAN and RS485 have strong noise immunity characteristics. CAN’s error detection mechanisms and message-based communication make it more resilient to errors caused by noise.

On the other hand, RS485’s differential signaling helps reject common-mode noise. While both protocols can perform well in noisy environments, the specific application requirements and network configuration may dictate which protocol is better suited for a particular situation.

Network Topology

CAN networks typically use a bus topology, where all devices share a common communication channel. This allows for simplified wiring and easy addition or removal of nodes.

RS485 networks can support various topologies, including bus, star, and tree configurations, providing more flexibility in network design. However, this flexibility may also require additional hardware and careful planning.



CAN is the dominant communication protocol in automotive applications due to its real-time performance, error-detection capabilities, and suitability for safety-critical systems.

It is commonly used for communication between electronic control units (ECUs) in vehicles, such as engine management, transmission control, and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS).

Industrial Automation

Both CAN and RS485 are used in industrial automation systems. CAN is often preferred for real-time control and monitoring applications, while RS485 suits applications requiring longer cable lengths and higher data rates. RS485 is also widely used in building automation, remote data acquisition, and process control systems.


Choosing between CAN and RS485 depends on the specific requirements of your application. CAN is ideal for safety-critical systems and real-time communication, while RS485 is better suited for applications requiring longer cable lengths and higher data rates.

By understanding the advantages and limitations of each protocol, you can make an informed decision that best meets your needs.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I use both CAN and RS485 in a single system?

Yes, you can use both protocols in a single system, either by using gateways or by designing multi-protocol devices. However, this may increase complexity and cost.

Are there any alternatives to CAN and RS485 for industrial communication?

Other popular industrial communication protocols include Ethernet, Modbus, and Profibus. Each has its unique advantages and may be more suitable for specific applications.

Do I need special hardware to implement CAN or RS485?

Both protocols require specific transceivers for proper operation. Additionally, microcontrollers with built-in CAN or UART modules can simplify implementation.

How can I ensure the reliability of my CAN or RS485 network?

Proper termination, grounding, and shielding are essential for maintaining reliable communication in both CAN and RS485 networks. Adhering to best practices and guidelines can significantly improve network performance.

Are there any limitations on the number of devices that can be connected to a CAN or RS485 network?

CAN networks can support up to 2032 devices, while RS485 networks can accommodate up to 32 devices. However, practical limitations, such as cable length and data rates, may impact the actual number of devices that can be connected.

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