Toyota has suffered from crippling bad press after the car manufacturer recalled millions of vehicles to address a fault that causes an inexplicable acceleration when driving. This fault is having deadly consequences and has been blamed for more than 100 possible deaths.

The company has been busy looking for the cause of the issue, repairing mechanical faults (such as sticky pedals and floor mats) with 13 affected models, but are they looking in the right place?

Although this might sound like an “out there” theory, federal regulators are now investigating whether this ‘sudden acceleration’ is being triggered by high energy particles from space.

Mars Attacks

Cosmic rays are known to impact our atmosphere and we know they can damage sensitive electronics in space.

Many space probes have had dealings with the cosmic menace — including NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) — often forcing onboard computers to switch to safe mode to spare the system from further damage.

In the case of the MRO, high-energy protons are thought to be behind a recent outage, originating from the sun (after being accelerated by explosive magnetic events such as flares) or from deep space, possibly blasted our way from supernovae (although deep space particle acceleration mechanisms are not fully understood).

But the MRO is in the vacuum of space; how could cars be hit by high energy protons when we are blanketed in a protective atmosphere?

Terrestrial Assaults

Cosmic rays can penetrate deep into our atmosphere, colliding with atmospheric molecules on the way. Even the Large Hadron Collider’s (LHC) sensitive particle detectors measure cosmic ray events, routinely detecting the particles generated after impact.

But should a computer’s processor suffer a direct hit, data can become corrupted, generating calculation errors. Sometimes these errors can cause a lot more than just interrupting your Wii Fit training session, people’s lives have been put at risk.

In 2009, it’s thought that a cosmic ray event was to blame for the bizarre behavior of a Quantas Airbus flight off Australia’s northwest coast. The aircraft took two rapid dives, seriously injuring an attendant and passengers, before control was regained. An investigation revealed the onboard computers were functioning perfectly, but new programming was added to the Airbus fleet to filter out cosmic ray “spikes” detected in the computer’s calculations.

Even the computer processor manufacturer Intel has announced plans to protect their increasingly powerful, yet increasingly vulnerable microchips with cosmic ray detectors. The detectors are intended to sense an energetic particle impact before commanding the microprocessors to re-process the calculations that may have been corrupted, thereby smoothing over any errors.

“The risk from cosmic rays may not be thought of as a big problem on a single computer with a single chip, as there is the potential for error only perhaps every several years [...] on a supercomputer with 10,000 chips, there was the potential for 10 or 20 faults a week.” –

More Research Required

Could it be that Toyota has become the first recorded case of automobile technology being impacted by single cosmic ray events? After all, Toyota has been a world leader in car electronic controls, adding more sensitive processors to onboard computers, could it be that they have fallen foul of these high energy space invaders?

Although I have no idea about the number of microprocessors that can be found on board an average Toyota when compared with other makes of car, I’m skeptical that cosmic rays could have caused so many sudden acceleration events. Also, it’s not as if Toyota isn’t aware of the risk, saying their processors are “robust against this type of interference.”

But it’s not totally out of the realms of possibility, so it is prudent to investigate the matter further especially as our computer technology becomes more vulnerable.

Image: A NASA Chandra image of the young supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, a source of cosmic rays (NASA).