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Bug Transportation Technology

Do Car Safety Problems Come From Outer Space? 437

Hugh Pickens writes "As electronic devices are made to perform more and more functions on smaller circuit chips, the systems become more sensitive and vulnerable to corruption from single event upsets. This is especially true of Toyota, which has led the auto industry in its widespread inclusion of electronic controls in the manufacture of their various car models. 'These circuit families store not just data, but their basic function electrically,' says Lloyd W. Massengill, director of engineering at the Vanderbilt Institute for Space and Defense Electronics at Vanderbilt University. 'In the unfortunate event of a particle flipping just the right bit, a circuit configured to carry out a benign action may be reprogrammed to carry out some unintended action.' Denise Chow writes in Live Science that some scientists are pointing to cosmic ray radiation as a plausible mechanism behind the sudden, unexplained acceleration reported to have occurred with the late model Toyotas."
"As the design of automobile systems continues to evolve from mechanical to electronic controls, relying more and more on various circuitry and chips, these electronic components may be vulnerable to being confounded by high-energy radiation writes Chow. Federal regulators were prompted to look into the possible role that cosmic rays played in Toyota's product recall fiasco after an anonymous tipster suggested the design of Toyota's microprocessors, software and memory chips could make them more vulnerable (PDF) to interference from radiation compared with other automakers. 'What's not known is what direction Toyota and other automakers are taking in terms of finding and correcting these issues,' says senior researcher Ewart Blackmore."
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Do Car Safety Problems Come From Outer Space?

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  • by LostCluster ( 625375 ) * on Sunday March 28, 2010 @06:02PM (#31650786)

    Since the biggest Toyota runaway story has turned out to be a problem exists between seat and pedals [] situation... is this all hype with no science behind it?

  • No. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by stonecypher ( 118140 ) <> on Sunday March 28, 2010 @06:03PM (#31650804) Homepage Journal

    There's a reason that our entire modern world doesn't come crashing to a halt around us every 30 seconds. If every CPU was vulnerable to bit flips from random radiation, every part of your house would be on fire and arcing electricity. Times Square would look like the bridge of the 60s enterprise under attack.

    This is just some douchebag professor trying to ride the tragedies to fame. There's a reason it's always hitting the same system in the car. It's because the system is defective. There's a reason the professor has nothing but speculation to back himself up.

    This is the worst kind of charlatanry from someone who should know better. I hope his hosting school takes this very, very seriously.

  • by nbvb ( 32836 ) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @06:05PM (#31650822) Journal

    Sounds a whole lot like the e-cache parity errors in the Sun UltraSPARC-II processors.

    If you were never affected by that, consider yourself a lucky person.

    particle-caused bitflips are very much real.

  • If this is true, recreate the phenomenon in a lab. Test your hypothesis by exposing the circuitry in question to similar radiation in a lab. While you can't test thousands of sets of circuitry, being able to recreate it by increasing the amount of radiation and testing or automating the testing and dosage cycle and letting it run until the malfunction is noted or another failure occurs.

    It's not out of the question, IBM noted in the 90s []:

    Extensive background radiation studies by IBM in the 1990s suggest that computers typically experience about one cosmic-ray-induced error per 256 megabytes of RAM per month. If so, a superstorm, with its unprecedented radiation fluxes, could cause widespread computer failures.

    You have to fix this though. As a large manufacturer you have to accept this risk just like your competitors do. Airlines accept this risk and triple check their data because people's lives are at risk. As a car manufacturer, you are in the exact same position.

    I hope the fix they already rolled out as a recall includes triple checking data or -- if the article is correct -- we won't see a drop in these horrible accidents. I hope for drivers and public safety that it does. It's led to death and possibly wrongful incarceration []. Restitution is in order. Take testing motor vehicles seriously.

  • by istartedi ( 132515 ) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @06:10PM (#31650884) Journal

    If a cosmic ray flips a bit in the (insert safe language here) array boundary checker, then what?

  • Re:No. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TheGeniusIsOut ( 1282110 ) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @06:12PM (#31650900)
    I can't even begin to calculate the probability of a single bit flip due to impact from a cosmic ray causing unintended acceleration in multiple vehicles. Possible? Certainly, nearly anything is. Plausible? Maybe in a very broad sense of the world. Likely? Not very.
  • by Cryacin ( 657549 ) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @06:21PM (#31651008)
    I think it's just trying to blame the little green men on a problem that has more terrestial origins.
  • by blackraven14250 ( 902843 ) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @06:23PM (#31651020)
    You may wish to consider that there were stories of leaked documents from Toyota that implied a cover up about the problems. I heard it on CNN about a week or two ago, and don't have a link, so take it with your grain of salt, but consider that Toyota does have a vested interest in proving every case to be driver error or fraud.
  • by dr2chase ( 653338 ) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @06:35PM (#31651104) Homepage
    Right, but then more of them would appear at higher altitudes.
  • Likely? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 28, 2010 @06:50PM (#31651210)

    The likelihood of a bit being flipped is already ludicrously small. The likelihood of a random bit-flipping causing anything but a nonfunctional car is also extraordinarily low; It is exceedingly unlikely that an event like this will flip just the right bit to cause a car to careen out of control. It seems that Toyota would have noticed an unusually high failure rate in general.

  • by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @06:52PM (#31651232)
    In order for it to interfere with a digital circuit, it first has to be radiation of the "ionizing" category, and then it has to get through whatever shielding the electronics are in. (I presume they are in some kind of can; no shielding at all would be plain stupid.)

    Cell phone radiation hardly qualifies. Nor, for that matter, do most terrestrial sources of radiation.

    "Cosmic rays", unlike most terrestrial-source radiation, are capable of penetrating shielding and disrupting electronics.

    However... striking just the right bit(s) to cause acceleration, in a large collection of cars, is so incredibly unlikely as to be in the "I don't f*ing think so" category.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 28, 2010 @06:52PM (#31651240)

    >Executables can have hashes like MD5 and SHA checked before being allowed to execute, etc.

    That's a ONE TIME check when you load the program. Sure it can check if the data in the FLASH has start to corrupt or someone has tempered the firmware. However, It doesn't check the memory once the coding is running which is 99+% of the time the code is doing. Cosmic ray can be hitting your car ANYTIME and not just when it is parked.

    ECC checks the memory bits during access and you can have periodic scrubbing to check for any changes. It has a higher chance of finding issues that are transient nature.

  • Cosmic Connection? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 28, 2010 @08:04PM (#31651756)

    So, in the case of Toyota, these cosmic rays are very clever. They targeted cars in the US and not cars in Japan or other countries. How did the rays target selective areas of the planet? Did they choose highly litigious geographical areas?

    I predict government grants will be spawned to finance new careers (and even a new federal agency) in Terrorist Cosmic Ray Detection and Analysis (TCRDA) to protect the US from these rogue rays.

  • by lgw ( 121541 ) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @08:36PM (#31651950) Journal

    I think that Rolls Royce offers a pure drive-by-wire system in one model, including braking. Of course, many airplanes are completely fly-by-wire. It's just a matter of cost.

    Nonw of which will prevent you from stepping on the wrong pedal. Maybe Toyota has a bug somewhere, maybe not, but remember the "Audi unintended acceleration" problem? 100% driver error. The "Toyota unintended acceleration" problem? The most likely explanation remains driver error (I'd have no doubts at all, expect I believe the Woz when he says he found something). Toyota's mistake early on was to try deny they had a bug, on the pathetic basis that the didn't have a bug, as no one ever believes they are stepping on the wrong pedal. They should have rushed out a firmware "fix" that instead recorded legal proof of the driver error.

  • by WaywardGeek ( 1480513 ) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @09:29PM (#31652254) Journal

    Radiation that can upset bits in an electronic circuit don't come from your cell phone, TV/radio stations or microwave oven. You may get enough EMI to interfere with your radio, but flipping individual bits in a chip pretty much requires an ion - basically a nucleus or neutron stripped of it's electrons flying through your chip. These come from two main sources. First, there's the Sun. Even with the magnetic shielding of the Earth, many fly through us all the time. Most common are single protons, but we occasionally are struck with gold nuclei, or even heavier. Older larger geometry chips were immune to single-event-upsets (SEUs) due to protons, but heavier elements could cause trouble. Newer, more advanced electronics are even sensitive to individual protons and neutrons. The other common source for radiation is neutrons from decays in lead used in electronic packaging. Ever hear of RohS compliance? Basically, a bunch of electronics companies around the world suddenly decided to "go green" and save us from lead poisoning by removing lead from their packaging. Ever wonder why? Do you really think they suddenly cared if they were killing our babies with lead poisoning? Uh... I'm afraid not. They removed the lead because of neutron radiation from lead decay.

    I'm guessing that studying radiation effects isn't very popular in Japan, possibly because we nuked them twice. However, they should get a clue and start learning about how to deal with rogue ions and neutrons.

  • by rickb928 ( 945187 ) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @09:38PM (#31652320) Homepage Journal

    I don't hear much about comsumer electronics being fritzed by cosmic rays, or microwave ovens, etc, though I suppose this might explain the random failurs. But comsmic radiation? That's a new one.

    But RHoS being forced by lead decay? I dunno, but tin whiskers is negating any advantage that offers.

    Give me good old eutectic 63/37 any day. It just works. Not a lot of kids usae circuit boards as pacifiers, ya know?

  • by tibit ( 1762298 ) on Sunday March 28, 2010 @10:18PM (#31652580)

    If the ECU is so susceptible to single-bit errors, I'd like to see it getting stuck in IDLE, getting stuck running rich/lean, etc.

    I'm pretty sure that if we *do* learn of what the problem was, it will be something rather embarassing, and will have nothing to do with SEUs, seized bushings, etc.

    Toyota's technical problem right now is lack of post-mortem diagnostics built into the ECU. Things that are "out of the ordinary" should be logged, ideally with as much of ECUs state logged as possible. That's their only *technical* problem. Everything else is hearsay at this point, from the technical standpoint. Engineering can't work with what amounts to gossip.

    Stories of people driving their cars with WOT to the dealerships with *nothing* constructive coming out of it indicate that there's gross lack of competence everywhere in their corporate structure. There's no communication. If a tech gets a "weird example" like that in the dealership, he should be able to get to the engineer who is on the ECU support team. Anything less should get responsible people jailed. Mr Toyoda has lost touch. It's not about incremental improvements. It's simply about corporate inertia and unnecessary shielding of people who should be working towards a common goal. If a tech at a Toyota dealer somewhere in the U.S. thinks he has something really weird going on, he shouldn't be treated like public enemy #1. He should be treated like a source of valuable feedback, potentially averting an ongoing disaster. There's no reason for said tech not to be able to get to the engineering.

    No, I don't work for Toyota or their dealers. But I've heard enough corporate idiocy to be able to recognize its symptoms. The blind running around exhibited by Toyota's engineering right now is a *classic* "all red flags" symptom. The first step at the solution isn't technical. It's corporate wetware.

  • Re:McMurdo (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Shimbo ( 100005 ) on Monday March 29, 2010 @09:04AM (#31655850)

    "You said this router's at the South Pole, right? So that means it's at very high altitude, with very little ozone shielding, right?" "Umm, yeah." "Well there you go. There's a lot more radiation at that altitude than at sea level.

    His explanation sounds a bit off; a few molecules of ozone may be good for stopping UV but I doubt it makes a lot of difference to cosmic rays.

    Just being at the South Pole is a much greater risk factor than mere altitude though, because it's where the magnetosphere funnels all the crap.

  • by Gordonjcp ( 186804 ) on Monday March 29, 2010 @11:13AM (#31657560) Homepage

    Is there a reason why cars aren't doing the same thing?

    Because there's no way that these problems are cause by "cosmic rays". If it *was* a problem, then we'd be hearing about all kinds of random electrical problems in all kinds of vehicles. Cars have had computer-controlled fuel injection and ignition for over twenty years now. Granted, the 68000-based engine management unit in my 1990 Citroen XM has a smaller transistor density than the extremely compact and powerful processors in modern systems, but if cosmic rays were flipping bits then the problem would not be confined to one manufacturer or one model.

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