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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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  • 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)?

  • 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...
  • 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
  • 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:Queue joke... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:57PM (#31676242)

    The programmers are too busy updating the bugs, adding more bugs and bypassing the quality controls.
    Mean while the suits are passing the buck, slipping money into politicians' pockets and giving themselves a around of raise.

  • Re:So... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @03:57PM (#31676244)

    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...

    Bingo! We have a winner. Watch for it to get very, very expensive for Toyota to sell cars in the US.

  • Re:Hmmm... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Mindcontrolled ( 1388007 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:03PM (#31676354)
    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.
  • 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.

  • 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 []). But one would think that EMI wouldn't result in several cases of the exact same system failure.
  • 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.

  • Re:What If (Score:5, Interesting)

    by moogied ( 1175879 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:15PM (#31676572)
    No its not that simple.

    CAN Protocol(the de-facto automotive protocol) contains error checking. So if a node in the system sends out 00000001 but the "sun spot" turns it to 01000001, it finds that error. So unless it changes that to a 01000001, while also changing the parity bit(or whatever they use for error checking) to 0 as well(as compared to 1), WHILE ALSO somehow disabling the entire safety section of code that reduces the throttle input when brakes are applied... then I seriously doubt it.

    Everyone involved in this knows the above facts, what they have to do is prove the above facts. The reason they called in NASA is because they lack the right type of experts, NASA does not. Case closed.

  • 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.

  • Re:So... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by commodore64_love ( 1445365 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:25PM (#31676792) Journal

    >>>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. - TOYOTA. "But my dealer did the oil changes. They have records and said they will back me up." No it is the fault of the customer. Warranty denied. - TOYOTA

    - "My Prius battery died after only 50,000. Warranty entitles me to a new one upto 100,000 miles." No. Not our problem because our tests show Prius batteries will last 200,000 miles. You abused the battery, so it's your fault. - TOYOTA.


    Yes Toyota did eventually go back and fix all these problems. They extended Prius battery warranty to 150,000 miles. They replaced or reimbursed customers for their damaged engines. They recalled the cars and reprogrammed the ECU so it would not ignore the brake or neutral commands..... .....AFTER the U.S. DOJ stepped in. Toyota of the 2000s acted like Ford of the 1970s. (Remember the exploding Fords?) Every company screws up, but to deny warranty to innocent customers, and force them to spend $7000 replacing new engines, shows the height of arrogance. What's the point of having a warranty if the corporation can randomly refuse to honor the damn thing?

    Source -

    I've been following the Toyota mess for almost a decade now, so I have a lot of sources. Here's a good starting point: []

  • by jwl17330536 ( 1603439 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:40PM (#31677116)
    Honestly, given the miles that Toyota has on land vs. the miles NASA has in space... Toyota might have the most 'accident free' record of the two. (Not including drivers who are just ignorant)
  • Re:Floor Mats (Score:2, Interesting)

    by CoderJoe ( 97563 ) * on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @04:59PM (#31677484)

    So the software producing and acting upon those CAN frames keeps the data in CAN frames internally, and has some sort of integrity check at EVERY layer? This could still be a hardware EMI problem. One that is usually caught by the CRC in each CAN frame, but in a few cases is affecting portions of the system that do not have an integrity check on them.

  • Re:So... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by robvangelder ( 472838 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @05:19PM (#31677780)

    And afterward, "Safety so good, it was verified by NASA

  • Re:What If (Score:3, Interesting)

    by einhverfr ( 238914 ) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {srevart.sirhc}> on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @06:09PM (#31678494) Homepage Journal

    I think they are clearly software-related. But the question is what the root cause is.

    You don't always know what the error condition is. It could be: "Well if the solder is cracked on this connection and this other sensor fails in this way, the following feedback loop is created and the software responds to the erroneous input by accelerating the car."

    This is almost certainly some sort of cascade from the root problem. The cascade is software related. The root problem may well be hardware related. However I don't think you can just blame cosmic rays, etc. since the behavior described is too narrow. Why not uncommanded braking or power steering errors?

  • 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:Queue joke... (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @06:49PM (#31679002)

    Because it's a hoax.

    James Sikes alleged unintended acceleration case

    On March 8, 2010, a 2008 Prius allegedly uncontrollably accelerated to 94 miles per hour on a California Highway (US), and the Prius had to be stopped with the verbal assistance of the California Highway Patrol as news cameras watched. The incident received national news coverage, with initial reporting including inaccurate information about the event, such as the claim that a CHP car was used to physically block Sikes' vehicle. Subsequent investigations uncovered suspicious information about the alleged runaway Prius driver, 61-year old James Sikes, including being US$19,000 behind in his Prius car payments and with $US700,000 in accumulated debt. Sikes stated he wanted a new car as compensation for the incident. Analyses by and Forbes found Sikes' acceleration claims and fears of shifting to neutral implausible, with Edmunds concluding that "in other words, this is BS", and Forbes comparing it to the balloon boy hoax. Further government investigator tests on Sikes's Prius reportedly showed that the brake wear were consistent with intermittent braking, not constant hard braking as he claimed. Sikes also reportedly had a history of false police reports, suspect insurance claims, theft and fraud allegations, and television aspirations. These findings raised questions about "the credibility of Mr. Sikes' reporting of events" in a Congressional memo.

    A few months ago, every auto maker had the same low reporting rate of cases of uncontrolled acceleration. The drivers were disproportionately elderly. Driver error and stuck floor mats have been routinely confirmed as causes in a majority of cases. Now there are hundreds of Toyota cases.

    In 2007, Toyota issued a recall on some floor mats after they were found to have caused an issue. In 2009, they expand the recall after some tests and it got minor attention. This prompted Toyota owners who otherwise might not have reported an incident to open their mouths, bringing attention to other issues, which snowballed the media exposure level.

    Then a driver ended up upside down in a lake, killing himself and the other three people in the car. His floor mats were in the trunk. A sticky accelerator pedal was blamed (initially by, I believe, the family). That's when the media absolutely exploded. There's just one problem... the driver was a 56 year old man with epilepsy. Hmm.

    There have been hundreds of claims from people in the last month or so, very few of which were in any danger or even suffered any damages. It's a hoax, plain and simple.

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

    by einhverfr ( 238914 ) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {srevart.sirhc}> on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @06:49PM (#31679008) Homepage Journal

    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 it is obvious that where you have a hybrid car, purely mechanical acceleration is simply not an option. The complexity of the hybrid system itself requires electronic control, which more or less requires drive by wire of an equivalent. So this isn't an unconditional opposition. I just don;t think it is appropriate for traditional, gas-powered cars.

  • by KharmaWidow ( 1504025 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @07:12PM (#31679246)

    Why are we wasting American tax dollars to solve a foreign auto company's technical error!? To further drive American auto industries out of business? We should just ban Japan's defective lead-foot autos like we ban China's lead-filled products.

        I wouldn't be surprised if this wasn't coming from NASA's already diminished budget.

  • by tsstahl ( 812393 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @07:59PM (#31679904)
  • Re:Queue joke... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Glendale2x ( 210533 ) <slashdot&ninjamonkey,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.

  • Re:What If (Score:2, Interesting)

    by cadience ( 770683 ) on Tuesday March 30, 2010 @10:39PM (#31681876)
    Correct for CAN. Though as for any protocol - garbage in; garbage out. The value(s) transported in CAN's payload may have been corrupted in memory or even in the CAN driver hardware* Actually, the "cosmic magic" is more likely to corrupt bits in static locations than represented as a voltage potential traveling along a differential bus with an active low being the dominant state. Of course, I have nothing to base this on, but I am posting here - *shrug*. * I designed both hardware and software for redundant CAN implementations.

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