The Detroit Free Press has a story today that claims the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is investigating whether cosmic rays are the cause of Toyota's sudden acceleration problems.
According to the story, an anonymous tipster last month wrote NHTSA hypothesizing that, "It is possible that Toyota is using electronic parts that are more susceptible to SEUs [Single Event Upsets] than other manufacturers. Components such as RAM, DRAM, SRAM, FGPAs, ASICs, etc... can all be susceptible."
The tipster says that, "The automotive industry has yet to fully embrace fault-tolerant architectures and software development methods that are used widely by the avionics industry," and that the chips used by Toyota may not be hardened against interference.
The tipster also writes that, "SEUs have traditionally occurred at high altitudes in aircraft and spacecraft and the avionics industry has successfully countered these events through highly redundant electronics and software."
NHTSA is not commenting on the story, but Toyota is. The company told the Free Press that its systems, "are not the same as typical consumer electronics. The durability, size, susceptibility and specifications of the automotive electronics make them robust against this type of interference."
Testing for the problem, the story says, "would involve putting vehicles in front of a particle accelerator and showering them with radiation, a step that experts said would help resolve the question."
Does anyone have an unused particle accelerator handy to find out?
Send answers to NHTSA.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.