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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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By GruntboyX on 3/16/2010 6:32:20 PM , Rating: 2
Cosmic Rays are very misleading in this title, and this article borders on link bait. As a hardware Engineer the real issue is EMI (Electromagnetic Interference). While Cosmic Rays are a component, that is .0001% of the issues faced. Furthermore, Cosmic Rays would show a correlation of events to region and solar cycles. The issue is more related to General Interference. Driving by a Cellphone Tower. Driving under power lines. Lighting. ESD. Radiated interference. Transient waves. ECT...

This is easy to look for and review. A 3rd party test house and or a Government laboratory can easily test and evaluate to Automotive and Regulatory standards. However, if there is a EMI issue, its more related to something the standards dont address. So the Car Total Manufactured Cost was so optimized that the car was designed to just pass standards and not the real world.

However, I doubt that is the issue. This is more a media circus with more speculation flying around, than facts and real data. I miss the days of journalism with real sources and real facts and data.

What does need reviewed, is the Firmware in the car. As complicated as the embedded firmware is, I imagine there could exist a software bug that requires three or four events or inputs to occur. Stack overflow, defective microprocessor with stuck bits. Possibilities are endless.

Toyota has produced about 20 million vehicles in the last 5 years and we are freaking out over 30 or 40 incidents. that is like 2 ppm failure rates. That failure is so buried in the noise floor its nearly impossible to get a reliable understanding of the issue.

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