Sam Philip14 April 2010

Cosmic rays broke my Toyota

Toyota calls in NASA to investigate whether space radiation was responsible for accelerator faults

Cosmic rays broke my Toyota

It's the oldest excuse in the book. Plagued by ‘unexpected acceleration' problems in your usually reliable automobiles? Already issued a comprehensive recall? American media still on your back?

Blame the aliens.

OK, not aliens exactly. Cosmic rays. Toyota has - and we're really, really not making this up - called in NASA's engineering team to investigate whether cosmic rays could have been responsible for the mysterious ‘stuck accelerator' scandal that has plagued the manufacturer in recent months.

Cosmic rays. Rays from space. It sounds, frankly, a bit mental... but it might not be. 

Many suspect that Toyota's accelerator glitches have been caused by electronic problems, and one well-documented - albeit rare - cause of electronic problems is when cosmic radiation hits electronic chips. Remember the Qantas plane nearly-crash?

The risk of cosmic ray interference is expected to increase as chips and circuits get smaller.

In a worryingly prescient interview with the BBC a couple of years ago, Intel's senior scientist Eric Hannah predicted the whole thing.

"You could be going down the autobahn at 200 miles an hour and suddenly discover your anti-lock braking system doesn't work because it had a cosmic ray event," Hannah said in 2008. "It's strange, but this is the reality we're moving into as we get smaller and smaller circuits."

Spooky, eh? NASA is due to report on its Toyota findings in late summer. Martian lawyers, prepare your defence case. 

Sam Philip

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