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NASA to help probe unintended auto acceleration

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NASA to help probe unintended auto acceleration

David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington -- The U.S. Transportation Department will launch two major investigations to discover whether vehicle electronics or electromagnetic interference are to blame for unintended vehicle acceleration incidents.

The investigations, one by the National Academy of Sciences and the other with the help of the NASA, will help get to the bottom of the issue, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an interview with The Detroit News Monday.

The announcement follows congressional hearings in recent months into reports of hundreds of runaway Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles.


LaHood said the investigation will not be limited to Toyota, but will cover all manufacturers.

Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles worldwide over concerns of runaway vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an agency of the transportation department, has received more than 3,000 complaints -- that include at least 51 deaths since 2000 -- linked to runaway Toyotas.

The Japanese automaker says it does not believe electronics or electromagnetic interference is the cause. It blames entrapped or malfunctioning pedals.

"Many members of Congress think it's electronics and I heard enough of that -- not only from members but from Toyota drivers ... and so we felt we really needed to get outside experts," LaHood said. "We are tapping the best minds around."

Toyota welcomed the investigation by the National Academy of Sciences and NASA.

"We expect they will bring a thorough and scientific approach to their examination of the issues. Separating fact from fiction can only be good for the motoring public and the industry as a whole," the company said in a statement late Monday.

"We are confident in our vehicles and in our electronics. We will lend our full support and cooperation to DOT and NHTSA as they moved forward."

Probe to last 15 months

LaHood also is asking the U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General to review whether NHTSA's Office of Defect Investigation has the necessary resources and systems to identify and address safety defects in the nation's automobiles.

LaHood said he wasn't ready to blame electronics, but noted that modern cars depend heavily on computers.

"The cars that are being manufactured today are primarily computers," LaHood said. "I've listened to enough people who believe that electronics is a problem that we just have to find that out."

LaHood said the National Academy of Sciences, an independent body using top scientific experts, will "examine the broad subject of unintended acceleration and electronic vehicle controls across the entire automotive industry." The examination will occur over the course of 15 months.

Experts will review industry and government efforts to identify possible sources of unintended acceleration, including electronic vehicle controls, human error, mechanical failure and interference with accelerator systems.

The Academy "has an impeccable reputation that we just felt if we could persuade them to get involved in this it would lend a lot of credibility to whatever they have say," LaHood said.

NASA scientists involved

Separately, he said, NHTSA has enlisted NASA scientists with expertise in areas such as computer-controlled electronic systems, electromagnetic interference and software integrity to help investigate the issue of unintended vehicle acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

"For the safety of the American driving public, we must do everything possible to understand what is happening. And that is why," LaHood said.

The experts will look at software, computer hardware design, electromagnetic compatibility and electromagnetic interference.

They will make recommendations to NHTSA on how its rulemaking, research and defect investigation activities may help ensure the safety of electronic control systems in motor vehicles.

The NHTSA review of the electronic throttle control systems in Toyotas will be completed by late summer.

NHTSA has brought in NASA engineers and other experts in subjects such as electromagnetic compatibility as part of a shorter-term review of the systems used in Toyota vehicles to determine whether they contain any possible flaws that would warrant a defect investigation.

LaHood said the department will spend $3 million on the two studies, including the cost of purchasing cars that have allegedly experienced unintended acceleration for inspection.

From The Detroit News:


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NASA to test Toyota electronics in safety probe

March 30, 2010 09:45 CET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. auto safety regulators are turning to NASA scientists for help in analyzing Toyota Motor Corp. electronic throttles to see if they are behind unintended acceleration, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Tuesday.

In addition to the work by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, LaHood also said a experts from the National Academy of Sciences will lead a separate study of unintended acceleration across the auto industry, a broader issue raised by congressional lawmakers at recent hearings on Toyota.

"We are determined to get to the bottom of unintended acceleration," LaHood said.

The Transportation Department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is just beginning its review of Toyota electronic throttles, which have come under heightened scrutiny following the recall of more than 8.5 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles globally over the past six months.

Both U.S. safety regulators and Toyota have faced scrutiny about whether either did enough to investigate driver complaints of possible electronic throttle problems and other safety issues in recent years.

The NHTSA review is to be completed by late summer after which the agency would determine whether a formal investigation of Toyota throttles is warranted.

Such a probe would set in motion a process that could lead to a larger recall for Toyota just at the moment when the automaker is struggling to win back consumer trust and lost sales.

Toyota has repeatedly said that it is confident in the safeguards built into its vehicle electronics and has seen no evidence that they have failed on the road.

LaHood said the timetable would not likely change unless "something very dramatic" happened with the NASA work.

Other investigations dating to 2004 found no throttle defect, but the agency handled those cases internally.

Separate reviews

Toyota, too, has asked an outside engineering consultant, Exponent, to review its throttles. Preliminary findings of that study have found no problems.

The Transportation Department inspector general is investigating NHTSA's and Toyota's handling of investigations into unintended acceleration. LaHood also said the agency watchdog would also determine whether NHTSA has appropriate staffing and expertise to handle sophisticated investigations into areas like vehicle electronics and computers.

Nine NASA scientists would bring expertise in electronics, electromagnetic interference, software integrity and complex problem solving to the Toyota review, Transportation Department officials said.

LaHood has maintained that NHTSA could handle the analysis itself but said suggestions from lawmakers at congressional hearings prompted him to consider outside help.

"We've used them before. We've heard that they may have some influence," LaHood said of his decision to ask NASA to help.

NHTSA has teamed with NASA in the past on studies of electronic stability control and airbags.

The broader industry review of unintended acceleration by the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council is expected to take about 18 months and is separate from the NASA analysis.

Separately, NHTSA is also investigating whether Toyota met requirements for providing regulators with recall-related information in a timely way.

There is no schedule for completing that investigation which could lead to a fine of up to $16.4 million.

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