Toyota, NASA Team Up to Investigate Mischievous Cosmic Rays

It's probably as good an explanation as any

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Toyota's annus horribilis can be traced, in part, to a rash of incidents where Toyota vehicles accelerated by themselves, causing drivers to lose control and crash. More than 100 deaths have been linked to such cases. No one's quite sure why this has been happening--some say it's driver error, others suspect electronic defects. Whatever the cause, Toyota announced this week that it would be enlisting nine electronics and software engineers from NASA to help get to the bottom of it.

It may seem like an odd pairing, but NASA and Toyota could actually be well matched in this case. Last month, an anonymous tipster floated a novel theory to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: ambient radiation from space, which bombards the Earth every day, might be causing the circuitry in Toyota models to malfunction. There's a scientific basis to this idea, since the same atmospheric radiation has been known to affect the navigation equipment of airplanes. As of now, the cosmic-ray theory has gained little traction, but it's reportedly one of the avenues the NASA team will be exploring. Pundits and gearheads are alternately dubious and amused.

  • Space Rays? Possible, If Not Likely  At Discovery News, Ian O'Neill provides a thorough rundown of the science involved, calling the cosmic-radiation hypothesis "not totally out of the realms of possibility." But, O'Neill adds, he's "skeptical" about it.
  • Either Way, a Useful Wake-Up Call  Jacob Gordon at the environmental blog TreeHugger notes that cars are increasingly computerized, so if the NASA probe leads auto manufacturers to start taking more care with their electronic components, it can only be to the good. "Companies producing fully electric vehicles and drive-by-wire systems may need to follow cues of the aerospace industry," Gordon writes, "and protect their cars (and occupants) from celestial meddling."
  • Just Shameful  Brett Emison, one of the attorneys who blogs at the watchdog site InjuryBoard, pulls no punches on Toyota, maintaining that the company has repeatedly buried or ignored information that points up its safety shortcomings. "Rather than focusing on a solution to the sudden acceleration crisis, Toyota has remained steadfastly focuses on protecting its image rather than protecting its drivers," Emison writes. "Toyota continues to put market share and profits ahead of safety and human life."
  • Is This Really the Best Use of NASA's Time?  Well, yes, admits Frank Ahrens, business blogger for The Washington Post. "NASA engineers and scientists don't have a lot to do since President Obama effectively killed the manned U.S. space program in his 2011 budget," he writes. Once upon a time, we were striving to beat the Soviets into space, but today "the individual, rather than the nation, commands the center of our attention, on Capitol Hill and in the marketplace." Small wonder that "the best scientific minds of a generation" are tasked with "figuring out why a relative handful of Toyotas are running away from their owners."
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