NASA Scientists to Test Toyota Electronics

Expert group created after Columbia disaster will study sudden acceleration.

Mar. 30, 2010 — -- A safety board formed by NASA after the 2003 Columbia space shuttle explosion has joined the federal government's inquiry into the causes of sudden acceleration in some Toyota vehicles.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that engineers from NASA's Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) will help the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration explore potential problems with the electronic throttles in Toyotas.

"NASA is an organization that has a great deal of expertise in electronics," LaHood told ABC News, "and they're going to look at the electromagnetic problems that people believe have occurred."

"We want Toyotas and all cars to be the safest they can possibly be," said LaHood. "And if these folks can help us get there, then it will be well worth the time and energy and money it takes to get there."

The NESC, based in Hampton, Va., was created as an independent body to conduct safety reviews at NASA in 2003, after the Columbia space shuttle exploded while in flight.

NASA spokesman Keith Henry said a team of at least nine engineers will be led by principal engineer Mike Kirsch. Kirsch most recently spearheaded tests that determined it would be possible to make a crew capsule for the shuttle out of composite materials instead of metal.

Henry said the NESC engineers who will be looking into sudden acceleration are "the top people in their field, in this case electronics and 'crew' systems, systems that related to cockpits."

Possible electrical faults, said Henry, are "something that these engineers have been looking at for years and years." He said the number of engineers working on the project will probably increase.

Secretary LaHood said that the National Academy of Science will conduct also conduct a separate, 15-month inquiry into electronics and unintended acceleration in cars from a variety of manufacturers.

LaHood said he felt that NHTSA had worked successfully with Toyota to determine that floor mats and "sticky" gas pedals were part of the sudden acceleration problem.

"People continued to experience acceleration that was, they felt, not caused by these two issues," said LaHood. "And they felt it was caused by electronics."

LaHood said that although both Toyota and NHTSA had not found an electronic cause for sudden acceleration, he felt it was important to consult with additional experts.

Said LaHood, "There is enough question I think, that we really believe outside experts can be very helpful to us."People believe that electromagnetic forces also have caused problems," said LaHood, "and that's why we've asked NASA to look at it."

NASA spokesman Keith Henry said the NESC was supposed to deliver its findings on electronic throttles to NHTSA by late summer.

Electrical engineer Antony Anderson, who was among the engineers who appeared at a press conference in Washington earlier this month demanding outside analysis of Toyota throttles, hailed LaHood's outreach to NASA.

"I think this is real progress," said Anderson, who has consistently argued that electromagnetic interference, or EMI, is the likely culprit in many cases of sudden unintended acceleration. "With NASA, safety is paramount."

Anderson said that NASA is very aware of the potential impact of EMI on electrical systems in spacecraft.Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said that the company "welcomes the opportunity for NAS and NASA to weigh in on these discussions" and that DOT and NHTSA had Toyota's full support.

Said Lyons, "We expect that they will bring a thorough and scientific approach to their examination of the issues. Separating fact from fiction can only be good for the motoring public and the industry as a whole. We are confident in our vehicles and in our electronics."

Toyota has recalled more than 8 million cars worldwide, including 6 million in the U.S., to fix floor mats, "sticky" pedals and braking software.

Click Here for the Blotter Homepage.