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Cosmic Rays may be Causing Unintended Acceleration in Toyotas

Posted: Mar 17, 2010 10:56 a.m.

Like a story line straight out of a George Lucas film, reports are surfacing that cosmic rays may be responsible for the dangerous cases of unintended acceleration that have spurred the recall of millions of Toyota vehicles.

“Before you dismiss the cosmic ray theory, consider that the issue has been known since the 1950s, and airplane and spacecraft manufacturers design in safeguards that triple-check all data as a defense from such interference from space,” writes Autoblog. “Later, in the 1970s, researchers found that small amounts of this radiation does indeed make it down to the surface and can cause problems with small electronics like cell phones and computers.”

The possibility was brought to light by a “concerned scientist” who sent an email to the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA). The message, which is published in full on Jalopnik, reads: “For reasons I am unable to disclose, I am anonymously submitting several publically available scientific papers that discuss the possibility of cosmic rays disrupting electronics at sea level, essentially flipping a bit from one to zero, or vice versa. This phenomenon is a ‘soft’ error that is not detectable except through redundant electronic and communication systems. The scientific community refers to such occurrences as ‘Single Event Upsets,’ or SEUs.” The scientist goes on to state, “The reason SEUs are now relevant to the automotive industry is because electronics have gotten smaller and the required voltage levels have dropped significantly, therefore making electronics more susceptible to cosmic radiation…”

Toyota, however, denies that SEUs are to blame for reported cases of unintended acceleration. According to the Detroit Free Press: “Toyota staunchly defends its electronics, saying they were designed for ‘absolute reliability.’ Responding to the Free Press, Toyota said 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.’”

Still, the NHTSA is taking the tip seriously -- adding the anonymous email to its investigation case file.

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