NASA tapped to help Toyota acceleration investigation

NASA engineers and top scientists to solve unintended auto acceleration mystery

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. 

 Seven advanced car technologies the government wants now 

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  

Layer 8 Extra

Check out these other hot stories:

Is US unmanned aircraft biz too booming for its own good?

NASA transforming, looks to further develop hypervelocity jets

US in search of Apple, cell phone forensic tools as online crime morphs

NASA gives Mars rover extra smarts

Helium rain on Jupiter makes for strange days

US agencies hot on predicting climate change

IRS security faults leave taxpayer information at risk

US to develop smart machines with visual intelligence

NASA, Russian astronauts set records, land back on Earth

First up-close Mars moon photos

NASA Mars Spirit rover battles winter onslaught

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

SD-WAN buyers guide: Key questions to ask vendors (and yourself)