Marketplace Scratch Pad

Cosmic rays and little green men

Scott Jagow Mar 16, 2010

The Toyota acceleration fiasco is starting to remind me of alien abduction stories. Like tales of failing car parts, spaceship stories seem to come in waves, too. Is it possible that thousands of people have been abducted even though no real evidence exists to support their claims? Is it possible that all of these runaway Toyotas from various model years have decided to act up all at once?

I don’t know the answer, but sticking with the outer space theme, the Detroit Free Press suggests cosmic rays might be behind the Toyota phenomenon.

No, seriously, this is a scientific valid possibility. For decades, electronics makers have known about “single event upsets” (SEU) — computer errors caused by radiation from space. There’s reason to believe the probability of SEUs has increased and may be affecting Toyota’s electronics:

Only in the late 1970s did researchers discover that a minuscule portion of such radiation falls to earth. It’s not enough to harm humans, but as circuits in computers and cell phones on the ground have shrunk to the width of several dozen atoms, the risk of errors has grown. “Five years ago, it was a problem in very few applications,” said Olivier Lauzeral, general manager of IRoC Technologies, which tests chips and software for SEU resistance. “In the past couple of years, we’ve seen a rise in demand and interest.”

In an anonymous e-mail last month to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a tipster said such an error “may be one reasonable explanation for incidents of sudden acceleration,” adding that the automotive industry had yet to adapt the techniques used by aircraft firms to prevent problems from SEUs.

Toyota believes its cars are safe from radiation interference, but it doesn’t believe James Sikes’ story about his runaway Prius in San Diego. NHTSA can’t explain the incident either. From the Detroit News:

“Toyota engineers believe that it would be extremely difficult for the Prius to be driven at a continuous high speed with more than light brake-pedal pressure, and that the assertion that the vehicle could not be stopped with the brakes is fundamentally inconsistent with basic vehicle design and the investigation observations.”

NHTSA said its investigators “have not been able to find anything to explain the incident that Mr. Sikes reported.”

Sikes’ attorney, John Gomez, told reporters Sunday that “there’s a ghost in the machine,” referring to electronics problems, and it’s not unexpected that NHTSA can’t find the problem.

Ghosts, cosmic rays, inexplicable events. Human nature.

By the way, I don’t believe anyone has been abducted by aliens.

Except me. My story’s true:

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