Monday, April 12, 2010

Cosmic Toyota or The Ghost in the Machine?

"The Mystery Man came over
An' he said: "I'm outa-site!"
He said, for a nominal service charge,
I could reach nervonna t'nite."
Detroit Free Press

Federal regulators are studying whether sudden acceleration in Toyota's is linked to cosmic rays. Half of more than 1,500 recent complaints to regulators involve other models, raising questions whether Toyota has fixed its problem.

Radiation from space long has affected airplanes and spacecraft, and is known for triggering errors in computer systems, but has received scant attention in the auto industry.
"Look here brother, who you jiving with that cosmic debris?"

Or is the problem caused by The Ghost in the machine?
Defined as the unknown cause of malfunction or unexplainable abnormal behavior of a machine or computer.

An anonymous tipster whose complaint prompted regulators to look at the issue wrote that the design of Toyota's microprocessors, memory chips and software could make them more vulnerable than those of other automakers. Some researchers echo the concern, saying the possibility deserves a closer look.

Toyota, the industry leader in using electronic controls, claims that its engine controls are "robust against this type of interference." Such radiation occurs virtually anywhere.

Electronics makers have known for decades about "single event upsets" (SEUs) — computer errors from radiation created when cosmic rays strike the atmosphere, such radiation occurs virtually anywhere. Yet, the tipster last month told the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) that "the automotive industry has yet to truly anticipate SEUs."

The phenomenon can trigger software crashes that leave no trace. Unlike radio-wave interference, there's no way to physically block particles; such errors typically have to be prevented by a combination of software and hardware design.

Electronic throttle controls such as the ones under scrutiny in Toyota's are widespread in the industry. They're more reliable than mechanical links; they save weight and space; and they make other technology, such as stability control, possible.
Toyota staunchly defends its electronics, saying they were designed for "absolute reliability." The automaker said its systems "are not the same as typical consumer electronics. The durability, size, susceptibility and specifications of the automotive electronics make them robust against this type of interference.
WTF?! What kind of science is this? Cosmic particles pass through the planet. Even Mr. Toyoda's lead lined sack can not stop them!
Testing for the problem would involve putting vehicles in front of a particle accelerator and showering them with radiation, a step that experts said would help resolve the question.  Listening MR Toyoda?

"The Mystery Man got nervous
An' he fidget around a bit.
He reached in the pocket of his Mystery Robe
An' he whipped out a shaving kit!"

A minuscule portion of cosmic radiation falls to Earth. It's not enough to harm humans, but the risk of errors has grown as circuits in computers and cellphones on the ground have shrunk to the width of several dozen atoms.

And why will Toyota not release the data from their on-board event data recorders?  

"Now is that a real poncho or is that a Sears poncho?"
                   Frank Zappa  

and Steve

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