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NASA Transportation Science

NASA Summoned To Fix Prius Problems 380

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the tang-is-not-always-the-answer dept.
coondoggie writes "If you want to solve a major engineering mystery, why not bring in some of the world's best engineers? The US Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration today said it was doing just that by bringing in NASA engineers with expertise in areas such as computer controlled electronic systems, electromagnetic interference, and software integrity to help tackle the issue of unintended vehicle acceleration in Toyotas. The NHTSA review of the electronic throttle control systems in Toyotas is to be completed by late summer." We're really in trouble when NASA has no choice but to call Bruce Willis.
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NASA Summoned To Fix Prius Problems

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    How many engineers does it take to fix a Toyota?

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:48PM (#31676076)

      Three.

      One to remove the floor-mat.
      One to absorb the cosmic rays supposedly causing the problem.
      One to actually fix the problem, by reintroducing mechanical acceleration.

      I'll be here all day.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by jandrese (485)
        It's not like purely mechanical accelerators never stuck though. Cables would freeze up or the return spring would wear out/snap and bam, full throttle. I actually learned to drive on a car that had this problem, which led to some rather scary moments--luckily it was a manual, so just hitting the clutch was enough to stop the car from going out of control.

        That said, why is it in these stories of runaway acceleration, that nobody slaps the thing into neutral and hits the brakes? The stories always read
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by einhverfr (238914)

          Mechanical throttles are conceptually simpler and have more obvious and obviously testable failure cases. It's not that hard to deal with them.

          However, drive by wire introduces a number of layers of complexity and abstraction. In addition to mechanical failure cases, now you have electronic (hardware) and logical (software) problems as well. The added complexity makes all of this much more difficult to address, and it insulates the driver from the overall control of the vehicle.

          This being said, I think i

        • Re:Queue joke... (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Glendale2x (210533) <slashdotNO@SPAMninjamonkey.us> on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @08:41PM (#31680538) Homepage

          That said, why is it in these stories of runaway acceleration, that nobody slaps the thing into neutral and hits the brakes? The stories always read like "I was powerless to stop my deathcar!" but drivers have lots of options in situations like that. You can even just turn the car off and hope you haven't picked up a vacuum leak.

          I hear that these cars are "too smart" to let you shift while driving. I drive a stick (my preference) so I have no idea if that's accurate or not, but I did sit in a Prius at an auto show once and there's nothing mechanical about the drive/park/reverse selector. It merely indicates to the computer what you would like to do.

    • by rickb928 (945187)

      Yeah...

      How many Russians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

      Two. But don't ask how they got in there....

  • by aapold (753705) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:44PM (#31676002) Homepage Journal
    I guess today's NASA is a good call...
  • So... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anachragnome (1008495) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:45PM (#31676024)

    So, this is an admission that sticking pedals and faulty floormats had nothing to do with the problem, and that the recalls to fix pedal and floormat "problems" were simply a smokescreen to hide the actual cause of the problem (albeit, unknown cause)?

    • Re:So... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by SBrach (1073190) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:49PM (#31676098)
      Yes. Toyota decided the least convoluted way of admitting to software issues was to have a government agency of a foreign country (NHTSA) call in another agency (NASA) to look for software bugs as part of that foreign country's investigation into the matter.
      • Re:So... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by eth1 (94901) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:27PM (#31676826)

        And as a bonus, the US taxpayers get to pay for it instead of Toyota.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Sleepy (4551)

          >And as a bonus, the US taxpayers get to pay for it instead of Toyota.

          Except that's not true in any sense.

          • Re:So... (Score:4, Insightful)

            by FlyMysticalDJ (1660959) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:52PM (#31677346)
            When I see someone say "That's not true." and nothing else, I almost exclusively interpret that as an empty post. If you know for a fact that that isn't true, then please, be more informative. Tell us what IS true. Or at least how you know that that is not true.
        • Re:So... (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Anachragnome (1008495) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @06:27PM (#31678700)

          And all the employees of the US-located Toyota factories might get to keep their jobs.

          It annoys the shit out of me when people fail to take into account that many foreign companies actually produce their products HERE in the US.

          Why? Two reasons, really. It is cheaper to sell cars that don't need to be shipped half way around the world (a cost that is usually passed onto the consumer), and because we Americans whined and sniveled about foreign entities putting our citizens out of work. In short, they did what we wanted them to do.

          Now it is time to help them out and POSSIBLY SAVE LIVES. I cannot think of a more noble reason to get NASA involved, or ANY agency for that matter.

          • Re:So... (Score:4, Informative)

            by GoodNicksAreTaken (1140859) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @07:21PM (#31679366)
            A large number of the parts ARE shipped halfway around the world and the cost to ship a complete vehicle likely isn't much more if more expensive. The reason Toyota has a large number of factories in the US (which employ UAW union workers) is because it was a lot cheaper to produce vehicles in the US and Canada and not pay huge tariffs. There is a lot of information on this decision by Toyota in Episode 403 [thisamericanlife.org] of This American Life.
    • Re:So... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by khallow (566160) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:51PM (#31676136)
      Or it's an admission that the administration wants to make a public circus out of this in order to protect their investment in GM and Chrysler. Or maybe it's an admission that the NHTS doesn't have experience in embedded computer systems and grabbed some from elsewhere.
      • Re:So... (Score:5, Funny)

        by Jenming (37265) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:56PM (#31676236)

        It was my understanding that the entire problem was caused by some Shadowrunners hired by GM and Ford to break into the Toyato supply lines. I heard it was a three pronged attack, their decker injected some software bugs, they let a troll loose in the factory to fuck with the pedals and they got a shaman to curse the floor mats.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by ravenshrike (808508)

          It was my understanding that the entire problem was caused by some Shadowrunners hired by GM and Chrysler to break into the Toyota supply lines. I heard it was a three pronged attack, their decker injected some software bugs, they let a troll loose in the factory to fuck with the pedals and they got a shaman to curse the floor mats.

          FTFY

        • Ahh, why do you need NASA when you can simply ask slashdot. Occam's razor is on your side, Jenming. Well played.
        • by khallow (566160)
          That's pretty fucking hardcore. I'm surprised the Yakusa hasn't iced them yet, the CEOs that is. You'd expect the CEO of General Motors to be found floating in his jacuzi, the unfortunate victim of a accidental beheading. The CEO of Chrysler will be eaten by by his car, which somehow acquired a demonic spirit hostile to automotive CEOs. Must be cosmic rays.

          I wonder if this would have happened, if the gremlins hadn't taken over the NSA?
      • Re:So... (Score:5, Interesting)

        by jwietelmann (1220240) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:09PM (#31676476)
        This doesn't hurt Toyota; if anything it helps them. Nobody is buying the sticky-pedal, caught-in-the-floormat explanation anyway, so how could this do anything but help restore confidence in Toyota? You get NASA to say that the electronics could use some better shielding, everyone assumes that EMI was the problem, and you get right back to selling Prius'.

        What's really wrong? I don't know (I'm sort of 50/50 between it being a software race condition or driver error [thecarconnection.com]). But one would think that EMI wouldn't result in several cases of the exact same system failure.
      • Re:So... (Score:4, Informative)

        by timeOday (582209) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:45PM (#31677202)

        Or maybe it's an admission that the NHTS doesn't have experience in embedded computer systems and grabbed some from elsewhere.

        They don't: [washingtonpost.com]

        NHTSA, meanwhile, was woefully unprepared to decide whether engine electronics might be at fault, Waxman and Stupak said. NHTSA officials told investigators that the agency doesn't employ any electrical engineers or software engineers.

    • Re:So... (Score:5, Informative)

      by natehoy (1608657) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:53PM (#31676174) Journal

      This is an "admission" of nothing. Nowhere does it say that Toyota has asked NASA to help out.

      The NHTSA is asking NASA to help out, but the NHTSA has never asserted that this was a pedal or floormat problem. They've just been holding Toyota to the fire to get a fix. And the fixes so far do not appear to be working.

      This is a sign that the NTSB is likely suspicious of Toyota's explanation, and frustrated with continuing reports of sudden acceleration even on "fixed" cars, and would like someone without a vested interest in a cheap fix to examine this. Given NASA's experience with writing software that's just gotta work or else, I'd be very hard-pressed to think of no better team of programmers for the job.

    • Re:So... (Score:5, Insightful)

      by confused one (671304) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:08PM (#31676446)

      If NASA cannot find a problem, then Toyota is off the hook.

      If NASA does find a problem, then Toyota can say -- "It was such a subtle problem, it took NASA's resources and expertise to find and fix it."

      Either way, it can be spun positively by the PR folks.

    • Given the way complex systems tend to work, and the psychology of how people debug them, it seems much more Occam-friendly to suggest that the pedal and floormat problems were real; but, by virtue of being more common and substantially easier to see(debugging of subtle edge cases in embedded code that may or may not happen under certain circumstances but evidence is largely anecdotal, which just isn't too helpful when what you need are the precise parameters the ECU was seeing at the time, is a bitch. Obser
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      >>>pedal and floormat "problems" were simply a smokescreen to hide the actual cause of the problem

      Yes it's been Toyota's modus operandi since about 2000 - blame the customer not Toyota:
      - "My car accelerated out of control, even when I shifted to neutral!". - It was your fault, not ours. - TOYOTA.
      - "My car's engine (times about 100,000 other engines) died after only 20,000 miles. It's under warranty and would like a new one." No. It is the fault of the customer for not changing oil. - TOYOT

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Red Flayer (890720)

        Here's a good starting point: http://www.consumeraffairs.com/automotive/toyota_engine.html [consumeraffairs.com]

        It's disingenuous to single out Toyota when so many other major car makers habve a similar track record.

        Here's [consumeraffairs.com] a primer to help anyone who thinks that the arrogance of car manufacturers is limted to Toyota.

        Of note, check out numbers 1&2 on the list... exploding Fords again (albeit just spitting a spark plug, not a fuel tank explosion).

  • by Tinctorius (1529849) * on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:46PM (#31676034)
    Driving a car is rocket science.
  • by nitehawk214 (222219) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:46PM (#31676036)

    Working as a developer at a tiny shop just out of college. Any time the CEO had troubles figuring out how to access a website I would be summoned to "just fix it" for him.

  • uh oh (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:47PM (#31676046)

    Don't forget to tell them the Japanese use the metric system please.

  • Hmmm... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Mindcontrolled (1388007) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:47PM (#31676052)
    Wait, so when a private corporation fubars something, you gotta roll in the government funded engineers to fix it? Interesting, interesting...
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by chord.wav (599850)

      Government has been helping car manufacturers, banks, wall street execs, etc, etc. for a long time now. Hope you aren't just realizing this now. Otherwise, put the shotgun and the shaving blades in a locked compartment and throw the key away, cause you are in for a depressing ride...

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        Seems I forgot the sarcasm tags up there - I beg your pardon. Well, took no more that 10 minutes for the troll mod anyway. My non-sarcastic point - inefficiency and failure is not a function of government vs. private. Such oversimplifications kill rational debate. Inefficiency is mostly a function of size. Have you seen the amount of bureaucracy large corporation develop? I had some glimpses into the inner workings of multinationals - can't distinguish that from any government.
  • Willis!? (Score:4, Funny)

    by indre1 (1422435) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:47PM (#31676064)
    Bruce Willis? They'd better call Chuck Norris to fix the pedals with a roundhouse kick or I'm selling my Toyota!
    • Well if Chuck Norris roundhouse kicks the pedals, they'll definitely stick. That takes the "unexpected" out of unexpected acceleration, but doesn't really solve the issue...
  • Floor Mats (Score:4, Insightful)

    by sycodon (149926) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:48PM (#31676074)

    If the problems with the shuttles were related to floor mats then perhaps NASA could help. Otherwise, it's just another set of computer scientists looking over a few million lines of code they didn't write, trying to find a defect that has supposedly manifest itself less than a few hundred times out of million of cars and probably billions of miles driven.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Bobfrankly1 (1043848)

      If the problems with the shuttles were related to floor mats then perhaps NASA could help. Otherwise, it's just another set of computer scientists looking over a few million lines of code they didn't write, trying to find a defect that has supposedly manifest itself less than a few hundred times out of million of cars and probably billions of miles driven.

      Which means the newest guy at NASA will find it in the first week, and solve it by adding a semi-colon.

    • Re:Floor Mats (Score:5, Interesting)

      by c++0xFF (1758032) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:56PM (#31676238)

      There's other theories, too, that NASA could help with. Such as current spikes or other hardware problems.

      In reality, NASA may be a perfect choice given their experience with designing fault-tolerant systems. That means everything from protecting the system from the environment to software validation. The control systems in a car have become very complex, approaching that of airplanes and rockets. I think NASA is a good choice, although I might have gone with an aerospace company instead, such as Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop, EADS, etc.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ArsonSmith (13997)

        I'd say the control systems have become far more complex in cars than in airplanes or rockets. The problem being that they don't need to have all the redundancy under most circumstances. This is one of the few places though where it's similar to an airplane falling out of the sky. 99% of the time though if something fails in a car's control system it just means sitting on the side of the road waiting for AAA.

    • I doubt it will boil down to a code review. Code used for special purpose stuff like this is usually very different from the code used in a general purpose computing device. Very few conditional branches, very straight line execution. This should make it possible to test every possible code path thoroughly, unlike, say Windows or Linux, where a complete test of every possible code path would take longer than it would take for the Sun to burn out.
      • Of course, that said, the reason this type of code is usually (effectively) bug free is because it *is* tested that thoroughly. So either Toyota cut corners, their code coverage module was incorrect, or something is happening that 100% code coverage couldn't catch (e.g. the cosmic ray explanation advanced previously).
    • Re:Floor Mats (Score:5, Interesting)

      by HarvardAce (771954) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:05PM (#31676392) Homepage

      Otherwise, it's just another set of computer scientists looking over a few million lines of code they didn't write, trying to find a defect that has supposedly manifest itself less than a few hundred times out of million of cars and probably billions of miles driven.

      You're confusing "electronic" with "software." One possible theory is that interference (internal or external) is causing signals between parts to become corrupted. My understanding (having RTFA) is that they are focusing on the electrical engineering aspects of it. I would imagine that NASA, needing to design and test equipment in the harsh environment of space, is pretty darn good at exactly that.

  • by nathanielinbrazil (1774720) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:50PM (#31676120) Journal
    The budget cuts at NASA apparently keep them earthbound and working on earth crawlers
  • by p51d007 (656414) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:53PM (#31676164)
    and when it is all said & done, they will conclude people are hitting the GAS instead of the BRAKE.
    • Yeah, I'm sure that John Saylor who was trained as a CHP officer for driving in adverse conditions at high speeds was totally just hitting the wrong pedal when he and his family were killed.
  • this *IS* one of those problems that requires a rocket scientist to figure out. I never thought I'd see the day. My life is now complete.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by ArsonSmith (13997)

      Toyota testified in front of congress, "We're automotive engineers not rocket scientists."

      Congress said, "I know a guy, that knows a guy. Let me make a phone call."

      now this.

    • this *IS* one of those problems that requires a rocket scientist to figure out. I never thought I'd see the day. My life is now complete.

      Toyota doesn't utilize rocket propulsion on the Prius, unfortunately.

      Hang in there.

  • by roman_mir (125474) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:54PM (#31676202) Homepage Journal

    I think this is a stunt on 2 levels:

    1. Public relations need to be fixed somehow, so calling in NASA shows that the company is 'dead serious' about fixing this problem and they are going for the best people to do it, right?

    2. A small token of appreciation to the government of USA by hiring NASA people, creating some employment, probably this is done with an involvement of a senator or two, some governor maybe, whatever, some politicians will get involved and this is probably important for Toyota now.

    3. Something else, again not really related to the actual car problem, but trying to save the company's ass.

    • by confused one (671304) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:13PM (#31676554)

      I said this earlier:

      If NASA does find a problem then Toyota can spin it as it being so subtle that it took the resources of NASA to find it. They can then use this, with PR spin, and an agreement to contract with NASA for "consulting" as a win.

      If NASA finds nothing, then Toyota is off the hook wrt the drive by wire system, again a win.

    • by natehoy (1608657)

      Except that Toyota is not hiring NASA. A US Government office is.

    • by winomonkey (983062) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:36PM (#31677054)
      Did you RTFA? Toyota is mentioned twice, and only in the context of Toyota the vehicle make, not Toyota the company. NASA is not being hired by Toyota. NASA is being called in by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of the USDOT to look at the vehicles, because the NHTSA apparently does not have the expertise to handle the investigation as to why the vehicles are suffering from the uncontrolled acceleration. The US government, not Toyota, is paying scientists from another federal program 3 million dollars to investigate the problem, which is actually bad PR for Toyota. This makes it look like they cannot explain their own problem, let alone fix it, and the US government has to do clean up work to get to the root of these failures.
  • Fate it seems... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Jon Abbott (723) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:55PM (#31676218) Homepage

    What is truly ironic here is that NASA regularly [nasa.gov] summons [wikipedia.org] external [wikipedia.org] panels [nasa.gov] to fix their problems.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Glendale2x (210533)

      Three of those that you cited were incidents that caused loss of crew and vehicle, some quite dramatic. Had they kept the resulting investigation internal for those were very public events, they could have been accused of covering something up. Or maybe they wouldn't have truly found the fault, or deluded themselves into thinking it was just an accident. What if we never knew that engineers were requesting imaging of Columbia? Or that engineers were trying to say "no go" to Challenger? Whatever they were do

  • With electric vehicles (Mars and Lunar Rover)

  • I've heard a lot of rumors in recent years about poor technical abilities at NASA. I wonder if this is primarily meant to give NASA some street cred.

  • Slashdot fail? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Manip (656104) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:03PM (#31676358)

    This is Slashdot and we suggest the most insane stuff be Open Source (e.g. "Why isn't my Microwave under GPL?"). But yet when we have an absolutely perfect opportunity to suggest that cars should be REQUIRED to be Open Source for public safety we drop the ball. Come on guys, we can use the power of Open Source and "many eyes" to literally save lives. You could be the geek that finds that piece of code!

    • by Rockoon (1252108)
      Maybe because we dont want geeks updating their cars firmware so that when accelerating, the pitch of the engine matches the "Final Countdown" melody, on the theories that "it would be cool", "that sequence kicks ass", and "because I didnt like the fork that locked and unlocked the breaks in time with "BOOM-BOOM-TSK"
  • Bruce Willis? The bigger issue is that they'll have to break Steven Tyler out of rehab.
  • $3 Mil? (Score:3, Funny)

    by MrTripps (1306469) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:10PM (#31676488)
    "The total cost of the two studies is expected to come to approximately $3 million, including the cost of purchasing cars that have allegedly experienced unintended acceleration to be studied." I guess they don't have to bother looking at the Car Fax. What does "unintended acceleration" do to the KBB value?
  • by ionz (1243994) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:14PM (#31676564) Homepage
    I think this more appropriate for Keanu Reeves... Speed 3: Hybrid Control
  • > We're really in trouble when NASA has no choice but to call Bruce Willis.

    Oooh... do we get to see him blow up a Prius? With him inside?

  • by seebs (15766) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:15PM (#31676574) Homepage

    I'd really like to see how the computer in the car manages to consistently only enter this mysterious state when the driver is 60 or older (or maybe in the late 50s). Because normally, if you have a ton of examples of something failing, all of which involve people of an age famed for acquired inattentiveness or confusion, and which look just like many other reported and documented cases of elderly folks getting confused and hitting the gas pedal thinking it's the brakes, you'd not assume it was the computer.

  • A billion dollars later and my Prius will be a Chevy pickup.
  • by Schickeneder (1454639) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:28PM (#31676850)

    ...Richard Feynman. Oh wait.

  • by Cro Magnon (467622) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:35PM (#31677004) Homepage Journal

    Toyota will learn what went wrong with its software, and NASA will find out how to get a vehicle into space.

  • by jwiegley (520444) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:39PM (#31677110)

    Yes, I think people are idiots. lots of accidents are cause by poorly maintained floormats, doing your lipstick, texting, etc. This isn't the problem here. There are way too many incidents of various natures to be accounted for by this.

    Yes, I think electromagnetic radiation exists. Yes, it can produce measurable effects. This, is also, not the problem here. EMF does not cause motors to turn with any appreciable torque. Modern electronics are sufficiently robust to this type of sporadic interference to account for this.

    The problem here is in the code. I have written embedded software. It is WAAAY too easy to make a subtle mistake in an embedded environment that has limited processing power, highly asynchronous processing and a multitude of cooperating software and hardware modules. Further more, it can be a total bitch to debug these environments and the faults that they can exhibit can be nearly impossible to reproduce. And in EVERY case where I've seen "Hey, it shouldn't do that. The code doesn't have it doing that!" it turns that yes, it was doing exactly what the code had it do under those circumstances.
    So, Want to save time and money? Ignore looking at anything other than code. Analyze the hell out of the software and you will find the culprit lurking there. You can put me on record for predicting this. (if they even 'fess up to the cause once found.)

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