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  (Source: Warner Brothers)

Could cosmic rays be blame for unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles and crashes? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating the possibility, which was raised by an industry tipster.  (Source:
Could outer space be endangering Toyota's drivers?

Whether individual reports of runaway Priuses are true or not, the sheer number of complaints and accidents would indicate that many vehicles in Toyota's lineup may have deep underlying issues. These issues are exacerbated by the fact that many American drivers are unaware of all the means at their disposal to stop their vehicles.

The feds are now examining a rather wild theory -- that cosmic radiation may be causing some of Toyota's electrical issues.  The feds received an anonymous tip from an industry source that Toyota's microprocessors, memory chips and software may be more sensitive to cosmic rays than its competitors, causing increased incidences of malfunctions.  Such problems are commonplace with airplanes or spaceships, raising the need for extremely robust electronic designs.

Sung Chung, who runs a California testing firm, says he believes the tipster may be correct.  He states, "I think it could be a real issue with Toyota.  [But] nobody wants to come out and say we have issues and we need to test."

Electrical interference could help to explain the unintended acceleration afflicting 13 models across Toyota's lineup, or about 5.6 million vehicles in total.  While software and hardware can compensate, to an extent for cosmic interference, cosmic rays can potentially cause the kind of unrepeatable "single event upsets" that could add up to many of the 3,000 complaints against Toyota received by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration since 2000.

William Price, who worked at a jet propulsion laboratory studying extraterrestrial electromagnetic interference (EMI) for 20 years, comments, "[It] occurs virtually anywhere.  It doesn't happen in a certain locale like you would expect in an electromagnetic problem from a radio tower or something else."

A Toyota spokesperson in a brief comment to said that Toyota's protections against extraterrestrial EMI were "robust against this type of interference" and that its vehicles featured "absolute reliability".

Toyota may not be the only one susceptible to cosmic EMI, though.  Other manufacturers likely would have similar occurrences even in more reliable designs, albeit less frequently.

Cosmic EMI may turn out to be of little concern, or it may turn out to be a major problem with the increased use of in car electronics.  The auto industry used to use mechanical links, but now uses electrical throttle controls to save weight and space, and make other technologies possible, such as stability control.  Those benefits could come at a cost, though.


There's a lot of confusion about what "cosmic interference" or "cosmic EMI" is.  "Cosmic interference" or "cosmic radiation" can mean one of two things:
First, disruption due to cosmic rays, which are primarily composed of protons (hydrogen ions), helium nuclei (alpha particles), and high energy electrons.  Secondly, cosmic bodies like the sun can transmit self-propagating electromagnetic waves through the vacuum.  These waves can be referred to as "cosmic EMI".  Cosmic particles can also cause damage, but aren't referred to as EMI.  This article is referring to both cosmic rays and cosmic electromagnetic radiation.

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RE: Cosmic Rays and Toyota
By porkpie on 3/16/2010 6:09:07 PM , Rating: 3
While I agree with your point in general, your specific example of airliners and fighter jets is flawed. Chips in these systems are typically radiation hardened...primarily because cosmic ray activity at higher altitudes is a much more serious problem.

RE: Cosmic Rays and Toyota
By jimmyj68 on 3/16/2010 6:44:45 PM , Rating: 2
What does radiation hardened mean? Simply speaking, how is it done?

RE: Cosmic Rays and Toyota
By Eris23007 on 3/16/2010 6:49:20 PM , Rating: 3
Various combinations of shielding, larger transistor feature sizes, and redundancy (e.g. comparing multiple answers and taking the "right" one).

RE: Cosmic Rays and Toyota
By porkpie on 3/16/2010 7:06:11 PM , Rating: 2
There's a whole basket of techniques. The most common isn't hardening against radiation per se, but simple error-correction and redundancy techniques, such as using ECC memory.

True radiation hardening can also be done in a number of ways, such as by building the chips on a substrate other than silicon (si-germanium or sapphire), minimizing dielectrics, etc.

RE: Cosmic Rays and Toyota
By walk2k on 3/16/10, Rating: -1
RE: Cosmic Rays and Toyota
By porkpie on 3/16/2010 7:11:28 PM , Rating: 2
"You're kidding right? Cosmic rays pass right through the entire planet while barely noticing it. A few thousand feet of air isn't going to make a damn difference."

Totally incorrect. Cosmic rays do not "pass right the entire planet". They won't even reach into a deep cave or the bottom of the ocean. You may be thinking of neutrinos. Cosmic rays are nothing but high energy neutrons and protons.

There have been a large number of studies correlating cosmic-ray SEU events to altitude.

RE: Cosmic Rays and Toyota
By Shining Arcanine on 3/16/2010 8:06:36 PM , Rating: 3
Well, both of them are cosmic rays. It is just that one does not interact heavily with matter and the other does.

RE: Cosmic Rays and Toyota
By porkpie on 3/16/2010 8:35:54 PM , Rating: 4
No. If you want to stretch a point, you can call neutrinos cosmic radiation (though most come from the sun), but you can't call them cosmic rays.

The only reason we get to call cosmic rays "rays" is because of historical precedent overriding pedantic correctness.

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