NASA to look into Toyota acceleration issues

The Transportation Department announces two major investigations into unintended acceleration in cars and the possible role played by electronic controls.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
2 min read

With major questions still unresolved about sudden acceleration incidents in Toyotas and other vehicles, Washington is turning to NASA engineers and the broader scientific community to examine everything from mechanical defects and human error to electronic controls and electromagnetic interference.

On Tuesday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced the start of two major investigations designed to look deeper into potential causes of unintended vehicle acceleration, which have been tied to a number of accidents, including some fatal ones. The issue has blown up into a major problem for the auto industry and for Toyota especially, leading to a massive recall of some of the Japanese automaker's most popular models.

Speculation has run rampant as to possible causes, with some blaming faulty electronics and others pinning the problem on more serious design flaws.

"We are determined to get to the bottom of unintended acceleration," said LaHood in a statement. "For the safety of the American driving public, we must do everything possible to understand what is happening. And that is why we are tapping the best minds around."

NASA is pitching in with efforts undertaken by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the auto safety arm of the Transportation Department, to understand Toyota's electronic throttle control systems. The NHTSA is hoping that the space agency's expertise in electronics, hardware, software, and "complex problem solving" will yield a full and detailed review. Nine NASA experts in areas such as electromagnetic compatibility are working on this project already, and more are available if needed.

That review is expected to be completed around the end of the summer.

The National Research Council, meanwhile, is taking a broader look at unintended acceleration and the electronic vehicle controls used across the auto industry, in a review expected to last 15 months. These experts from the NRC, a part of the independent National Academy of Sciences, will examine computer hardware and software, electromagnetic compatibility, and electromagnetic interference to see if any of those factors are at fault. They'll also look at how the auto industry and government agencies have conducted their research and defect investigations.

The price tag for both investigations is likely to reach $3 million, which includes the cost of buying cars said to have already experienced unintended acceleration.