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NASA Transportation Science

NASA Summoned To Fix Prius Problems 380

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 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 [] summons [] external [] panels [] to fix their problems.

  • Re:Hmmm... (Score:3, Informative)

    by chord.wav ( 599850 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:00PM (#31676296) Journal

    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:So... (Score:2, Informative)

    by ravenshrike ( 808508 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:05PM (#31676374)

    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.


  • by gknoy ( 899301 ) <> on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:06PM (#31676404)

    Moreover, their vehicles operate in adverse conditions (radiation, temperature extremes, chance of collisions with fast moving things). They might actually be fairly adept at looking at systems which are supposed to be robust and failsafe, and identifying ways in which they are NOT failsafe.

  • by tibman ( 623933 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:10PM (#31676498) Homepage

    wow, i can't even think in that kind of direction. Thank you for sharing but that does sound very unlikely. There was a part in the article talking about other private industry problems that NASA has helped with, but they don't mention Chrysler.. someone will have to research that.

    "In 2003, NASA and the NHTSA wanted to research new methods for testing vehicle rollover resistance after a widely reported factory recall of Firestone tires. NASA's High Capacity Centrifuge (HCC) was the answer. Vehicles were spun, using the HCC at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center on a test platform, until inertia and centrifugal force caused them to tip. Results of that test have set standards for rollover technology development."

  • Re:So... (Score:3, Informative)

    by commodore64_love ( 1445365 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:30PM (#31676892) Journal

    Toyota has had problems with:

    - engines sludging after only 20-30,000 miles
    - prematurely dying hybrid batteries
    - out-of-control cars hitting walls or driving off ledges at 100mph

    Ford has also had problems since some of their engines/batteries are supplied by Toyota. The KEY difference is that Ford honored the warranty and replaced those items free-of-charge. Toyota stuck their customers with ~$7000 bills to buy new engines or hybrid batteries, and pretended the warranty didn't exist.

    Toyota found itself in a class-action lawsuit in 2008 as a result.
    Toyota lost.

  • by fatalwall ( 873645 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:32PM (#31676922)

    if this was the case wouldn't you then need to look into how the peddles are placed?

    I remember one of my parents old cars where you could easily get your foot stuck under the opposite peddle while moving your foot from one to the other. My dad had always told me to be careful of that and I thought he was just pulling my chain until the day it happened to me.

    Either way there appears to be an issue, weather its hardware, software, or training. If its training then the question must then be why does this car require special training compared to others and what is said training.

    Although I kind of wonder if this wouldn't be better for Myth Busters...

  • 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.
  • Re:So... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Sleepy ( 4551 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:39PM (#31677102) Homepage

    >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, 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: []

    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.

  • by natehoy ( 1608657 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:45PM (#31677208) Journal

    Hence the name "National Aeronautics and Space Administration", eh? ;)

    Seriously, yes, you are correct. The FAA regulates, but NASA is responsible for a lot of the research.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:55PM (#31677408)

    First, having worked in safety critical software systems (aviation) for a number of years, and Level A at that (the highest level the FAA requires), the thing that many of these posts fail to recognize that automotive software systems ARE getting incredibly complex. When these problems first arose, my gut reaction was that if we keep seeing issues like this, the NTSB was going to investigate imposing FAA like standards. In my opinion, that isn't a bad thing. But I don't think it will happen any time soon, as the cost per car will increase to account for all the extra software testing that must be done.

    Second, just because a piece of software has complete code coverage does not mean that if an error is there, it is because of some "cosmic" effect. You also have to define what level of code coverage you are talking about. Statement coverage, decision coverage, modified condition/decision coverage, condition coverage? Even in the eyes of the FAA, this is a tricky area. You may have 100% MC/DC (the requirement for Level A software), but you can and will still have bugs. Anyone hear of bad requirements? That is one reason you have reviews for all areas, not just code (requirements, design, code, test, coverage, test results, etc).

    Third, of course you should have an independent team look into the bug. Why so many people think that having a set of eyes look at code when they have never seen it before have never had to have independent verification. When you are dealing with structured software development for the FAA, the testers are never the ones who wrote the code. They (should) only know requirements and functionality. Design and code mean nothing at that stage. The tests are then written to robustly test those requirements, and then only done once you feel you have 100% requirement based testing complete, you look and see what your coverage is. If you have reached 100% coverage, then you can probably feel confident that your requirements were good and your tests were good. But even then, you still need to have reviews done (ideally by an independent team).

    Lastly, just because this is "special" code, does not mean that there will be very few conditional branches in the code. Only with special code compilation tools can you create code that is linear. And as with avionics, automobiles are complex machines. They have many inputs to determine what should be done in a circumstance (right tire slipping, brakes applied, what should the engine do?). Therefore, not only will you have many conditional branches, but you will have complex conditional branches, which makes the software that much more difficult to test and debug.

    In the end, just as with avionics, safety should be the number one concern. If it requires us as a society to say that software in cars that keep you safe (brakes, acceleration, engine control, etc) needs to be regulated, and that the NTSB will create FAA like standards (just like nuclear and railroads have done), so be it. If we didn't have FAA standards, the planes would be cheaper, tickets would probably be cheaper, etc...but do any of us really want that?

  • by Coren22 ( 1625475 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:55PM (#31677416) Journal

    All the bolts I have dealt with on my Toyota are in metric...this can only end badly.

  • by Ogi_UnixNut ( 916982 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @05:08PM (#31677624) Homepage

    The cars do not have a Manual gearbox or ignition as such. Both are computer controlled. You only get a "start" button for the ignition, and thats about it, the rest is not in your hands. You can't just "shift into neutral" like in existing cars, or just turn a key to cut power to the engine.

    For more info on the system, you can read: []

  • Re:So... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Red Flayer ( 890720 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @05:48PM (#31678144) Journal

    Here's a good starting point: []

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

    Here's [] 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).

  • Everything is a mess (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @06:18PM (#31678608)

    Speaking as an ex-engineer at GM's proving grounds:

    Auto companies are basically systems integrators. It is almost always cheaper to outsource the parts design and spend your labor on making everything play nice. GM literally does not have an analog electronics department. Can't speak for Toyota, but they probably don't even have a guy on hand qualified to say whether EMI could be the culprit. Hence the NASA.

    Reliable EMI failures are not new to the auto industry. There was a Cadillac that would shut off the engine if you drove under power lines at a certain speed. There was a rash of cars exploding at gas pumps because the gas tank WASN'T GROUNDED and static discharge igniting gas vapors.

    Meanwhile, the code is a mess to look through and nobody knows the whole system. Almost none of the final code is actually written by hand. Everything is optimized automatically with autocode. This turns the code into unreadable spaghetti. If it passes the test bench, you call it good, and those test benches are definitely not exhaustive. I'll betcha nobody is waggling the windshield wiper voltage and seeing if it causes an acceleration upset.

    IMHO, could be either.

  • Re:Queue joke... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Aranykai ( 1053846 ) <slgonser&gmail,com> on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @07:12PM (#31679254)

    I have to correct you. I personally knew the man, as well as the other three passengers, and he certainly did not have epilepsy. We attended the same church for nearly 15 years and he was good friends with my father. The accelerator pedal was already questioned in the media when this accident occurred and the family has never issued a public statement on their view of the cause. The only people who spoke to reporters were eye witnesses.

    That being said, I too believe this accelerator pedal situation is incredibly sensationalized but lets keep to the facts or we are just as much to blame as the media. According to witnesses, the car accelerated rapidly crashing through a fence, into a tree and came to rest upside down in about 4 ft of water on the edge of a pond.

  • 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 [] of This American Life.

There's no such thing as a free lunch. -- Milton Friendman