NASA to investigate cause of Toyota problems

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The federal probe into runaway Toyotas has resulted in enough scientific mystery that investigators have asked NASA scientists for help.

The nation's auto-safety regulators have tapped nine experts from the space agency to answer questions involving software, hardware and other electronics issues, the Department of Transportation is expected to announce Tuesday, according to sources briefed on the plan who asked not to be identified because it is not yet public.

A separate panel from the National Academy of Sciences will be convened to work on a broad 15-month review of vehicle electronics and incidents of unintended acceleration across the industry. That probe will cover the potential for problems in electronic controls, human error and mechanical failure.

Despite four congressional hearings on the sometimes fatal crashes, experts continue to disagree whether defects in engine electronics have caused some of the incidents of runaway Toyotas. The increasing complexity of engines, which run on multiple microprocessors and lots of software, has complicated the discussion.

"This is exactly the right thing to do," Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of the automotive website Edmunds.com, said of the broader approach. Edmunds.com has announced a $1 million prize for anyone who can pinpoint the cause in the engine. "It's a cross-industry problem, and cross-industry investigation is what is needed."

The studies are to be peer-reviewed and expected to cost about $3 million.

The Department of Transportation also is expected to announce that the agency's inspector general has been asked to review whether federal safety regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have the personnel to adequately handle the complex engineering questions that arise in such investigations.

Toyota and its hired experts say they have found no problems in the engine electronics. And at least some of the crashes have been attributed to floor mats that entrapped the accelerator.

But some drivers, including one who testified before Congress, say that their cars zoomed out of control, even in instances when the floor mat was not interfering.

In February, lawmakers heard testimony from a retired Tennessee social worker whose Toyota 2007 Lexus ES 350 sped up to 100 miles per hour during a terrifying, six-mile ride. The car continued to speed, even after the driver applied the emergency brake and shifted into neutral and then reverse.

"I prayed for God to help me," Rhonda Smith testified tearfully. "I called my husband on the Bluetooth phone system. I knew he could not help me, but I wanted to hear his voice one more time."

Those incidents point to problems in electronic throttles and accelerators, according to some experts. In some models, such as the Camry, the number of complaints of unintended acceleration appeared to jump after the cars came equipped with the new electronics, according to data presented to Congress.

"Eliminating mechanical and human failures leaves only electronics as the cause," according to a presentation last week in Washington by British engineers.

The group recommended that NHTSA initiate standards for automotive electronic systems and that investigators get access to the automaker's software source codes, hardware design schematics, and test specifications and results.

In a slide show, engineer Keith Armstrong said that "30 years of empirical evidence overwhelmingly points to [sudden acceleration] being caused by electronic-system faults that are undetectable by inspection or testing."


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