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Are cosmic rays really causing Toyota's woes?

Believe it or not, that's the headline on a news item in today's Detroit Free Press, although it probably sounds more like something we pulled from the Weekly World News.

As crazy as it may sound, the federal government thinks it's plausible enough that they are now studying whether the sudden acceleration claims afflicting certain Toyota models are somehow related to cosmic rays. Seriously.

As a bit of background, cosmic rays are not like light rays (in fact, they are not "rays" at all, but rather individual particles). The subatomic particles can strike the Earth from outer space. They can be produced by exploding stars or even by our own sun and are usually deflected by our atmosphere. Sometimes, however, they make it through the atmosphere, where they have been known to interfere with airplane electronics among other things. Somehow we've never really looked into whether or not they might affect automotive electronics as well, so federal regulators are now investigating that possibility.

Toyota has already tried replacing floor mats and fixing sticky accelerator pedals as possible mechanical remedies, but the complaints seem to be continuing. It's entirely possible that the more recent complaints are fabricated, exaggerated or imagined, but it's also possible that there are electronic issues in these situations.

While Toyota has stated that they see no evidence to prove that the vehicles' electronic systems are to blame, we believe it is still a possibility. Professor David Gilbert testified before Congress along the same lines, explaining that he was able to produce a short that resulted in unintended acceleration without throwing a fault code to the car's computer. That theory was refuted by Toyota, but the electronics haven't been completely ruled out either.

The government decided to look into the cosmic ray theory after receiving an anonymous tip claiming the design of the microprocessors, memory chips and software in Toyota vehicles could make them more vulnerable to electronic problems than the design of Toyota's competitors. Toyota told the Free Press that its engine controls are "robust against this type of interference."


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