NASA engineers join Toyota investigation

NASA helping with unintended acceleration evaluation

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is bringing in a team of nine NASA engineers who specialize in computer-controlled electronic systems, electromagnetic interference, software integrity and hardware to help his department investigate alleged unintended vehicle acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

Transportation also is commissioning a separate investigation from the National Academy of Sciences, according to a news release of March 30.  “For the safety of the American driving public, we must do everything possible to understand what is happening. And that is why we are tapping the best minds around, LaHood said.”

The National Academy of Sciences will examine the broad subject of unintended acceleration and electronic vehicle controls across the entire automotive industry. The investigation is expected to take 15 months.

The academy’s panel of experts will examine possible causes of the unintended acceleration, including electronic vehicle controls, human error, mechanical failure and interference with accelerator systems. Systems to be examined include software, computer hardware design, electromagnetic compatibility and electromagnetic interference. The panel will make recommendations on how its regulations may improve safety in electronic control systems.

The cost of the two studies is approximately $3 million, including the cost of purchasing affected cars to be studied, the news release said.

LaHood has also asked Transportation's inspector general to review whether the department has conducted adequate reviews of unintended acceleration complaints since 2002.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader Comments

Tue, Jun 19, 2012 Joseph De Cosmo Tallahassee FL

I reported a problem with my 2008 four runner SR5. They did an acceleration adjustment. Here it is June 2012 and I am still getting small and not constant hesitation from the accelerator. There still does exist a problem that needs to be addressed by Toyota and NASA. The problem is real.

Tue, Feb 8, 2011 Robert Lodge Fort Lauderdale

I heard a number of people with the acceleration problem had also mentioned that they encountered a bumpy ride just prior to the acceleration. If this is accurate, then I believe that the bumpy ride may well have caused the software to think the car is going uphill, coupled with the a sticky sensor, you would have duplicated the problem. Robert president Data Magic Software

Sat, Apr 24, 2010 GIZMO

NASA should simply point out that there need to be adequate “black boxes” on all new vehicles to keep track of all the “fly-by-wire” systems used to control safety & emissions systems. These “black box systems” are found in the airline industry, with latest models of jet transports recording over 700 channels of data at routinely twice/second, with the rate increased during periods of rapid change, for periods of 17-25 hours. These data are easily studied by third party computers and software. Toyota claims that they have never encountered any defects in their “electronics systems” and therefore they are confident that such defects do not exist and apparently this has played well enough with NHSTA but not with others. Toyota has tried to pass things off as being due to such things as gas pedal entrapment under floor mats or throttle stickiness which supposedly can be cured by inserting a magic metal shim. Then to make absolutely sure that they are covered, they install a “software fix” so that the applying the brake is sure to disengage the throttle if it depressed, while protesting that the brakes in the normal course of driving are strong enough to over-power the throttle every time anyway. Toyota has the position that they have never encountered UA (Unintended Acceleration) not due to (or at least explainable by) some simple mechanical factor as described. Many drivers report simultaneous UA and loss of brakes and this passed off by Toyota as driver error, with the driver mistakenly pressing down the gas pedal believing that he is pressing the brake pedal. UA with or without loss of brakes is supposedly rare but the figures are difficult to evaluate. There is the immediate problem of data collection and issues of self-reporting. Many drivers might not have recognized it for what it is, or simply failed to report it, thinking they would not be believed or fearing Toyota’s well rehearsed counter-attack on those reporting these defects. Many drivers experiencing such defects might be dead, having perished in single car accidents with the police declaring that they must have gone to sleep, or suffered from some medical condition, or merely been driving dangerously in the first place. Many drivers with vehicles supposedly repaired by Toyota report continuing problems with UA and loss of brakes. Many of these vehicles should be fitted with adequate “black box” systems, collecting data from the large numbers of sensors and command modules already on board. If something suspicious happens the driver could harvest the data immediately by down-loading it to a laptop computer or by swapping out a data card such as are used in digital cameras, without disturbing the data remaining in a large data buffer on board. Web cams are dirt cheap and widely available. One pointed toward the driver’s feet and tied in with the other data on the “black box” would clearly show where the driver was pressing with his feet.

Sat, Apr 3, 2010 Jack Beadling Billings, MT

The Toyota control glitch
I am a senior Instrumentation and Control Engineer with over twenty years of experience. I have dealt with technical and communication issues that are similar in nature to the ones that Toyota has been experiencing. I have lead the teams that investigated and resolved these types of issues. Early attempts by others to identify and resolve the problems had no success. From my investigation we were able to find and eliminate the problems. I think that I could have a positive effect on the results of the Toyota teams’ efforts.
The Problems related to the actions that were going on with field devices and equipment that would activate without the command being initiated by the software or its computerized control systems requesting it. These systems were operated by the Department Of Energy.
I could make myself available to join their team and make positive inputs toward the resolution of the problems.
Jack Beadling

Fri, Apr 2, 2010 Electrical Engineer Kansas City, Mo

I would suspect an intermittent connector (ie firewall passthrough,etc). The Highlander sounds like a traction control problem thinking one of the wheels is turning faster or slower than the others. This would make the ABS pulse while driving.

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