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NASA tapped to help Toyota acceleration investigation

NASA engineers and top scientists to solve unintended auto acceleration mystery

By Layer 8 on Tue, 03/30/10 - 1:26pm.

If you want to solve a major engineering mystery why not bring in some of the world's best engineers? 

The US Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration today said it was doing just by bringing in NASA engineers with expertise in areas such as computer controlled electronic systems, electromagnetic interference and software integrity to help tackle the issue of unintended vehicle acceleration in Toyotas.  The NHTSA review of the electronic throttle control systems in Toyotas is to be completed by late summer. 

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The DOT said engineers from the National Academy of Sciences - an independent body of scientific experts - will also look into the overarching subject of unintended acceleration and electronic vehicle controls across the entire automotive industry. 

For NASA, the space agency's engineers will focus on technology such as electromagnetic compatibility as part of a shorter-term review of the systems used in Toyota vehicles to determine whether they contain any possible flaws that would warrant a defect investigation, the DOT stated. 

NASA's expertise in electronics, hardware, software, hazard analysis and complex problem solving ensures this review will be comprehensive.  Currently there are nine experts from NASA assisting NHTSA, and additional personnel will join the team if needed, the DOT stated. 

"We are determined to get to the bottom of unintended acceleration," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement.  "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." 

It's not unusual for NASA to get involved in such investigations.  Previous technology examinations involved electronic stability control and airbags. 

In 2003, NASA and the NHTSA wanted to research new methods for testing vehicle rollover resistance after a widely reported factory recall of Firestone tires. NASA's High Capacity Centrifuge (HCC) was the answer. Vehicles were spun, using the HCC at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center on a test platform, until inertia and centrifugal force caused them to tip.  Results of that test have set standards for rollover technology development. 

Meanwhile the scientists from the National Academy of Sciences will review industry and government efforts to identify possible sources of unintended acceleration, including electronic vehicle controls, human error, mechanical failure and interference with accelerator systems.  

The experts will look at software, computer hardware design, electromagnetic compatibility and electromagnetic interference.  The panel will make recommendations to NHTSA on how its rulemaking, research and defect investigation activities may help ensure the safety of electronic control systems in motor vehicles, the DOT stated. 

Both studies - from the National Academy of Sciences and from NHTSA/NASA - will be reviewed by scientific experts. The total cost of the two studies is expected to come to approximately $3 million, including the cost of purchasing cars that have allegedly experienced unintended acceleration to be studied.  

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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