• 2 Investigates: Are cosmic rays wreaking havoc with electronics, cars?

    By: Tom Regan

    Updated:

    ATLANTA - A metro man said a trip to the doctor with his wife turned harrowing when his 2008 Toyota RAV4 accelerated for no reason.

    "All of sudden ... the car took off at 90 mph. One, two, three seconds, we hit the wall," Simpson said. "I stomped on the brakes, causing injuries to our rib cages and breaking my wife's ribs."

    Simpson said despite his best efforts, the vehicle wouldn't respond.

    The couple doesn't know what happened to cause the sudden acceleration, but some experts suspect it could be traced back to cosmic rays.

    What are cosmic rays?

    The invisible energy beams are blasted away from exploding stars, or supernovas, light years away.

    Georgia Tech professor John Cressler said the energy particles can corrupt a computer's memory.

    These single-event effects are known as bitflips.

    Cressler told Channel 2 Action News that the problem isn't going away. In fact, he said he believes it will only get worse as technology gets smaller.

    "These are not fundamental problems, meaning they can never be solved. They are something always to be aware of something that can get worse as technology evolves ... That's why you have dozens of researcher hundreds of researchers working on ways to mitigate the problem in an intelligent way," Cressler said.

    Much of that research is happening in the School of Engineering at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

    Rebekah Austin, an electrical engineering doctoral candidate at the school, explained how cosmic radiation interferes with electrical circuits.


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    "Radiation deposits energy into our circuits, the things that run our cellphones …  When you have outside energy that you didn't intend to have in those circuits placed in those circuits then they can have behavior that we didn't intend," Austin said.

    In the case of a bitflip, Austin said the only thing a program knows to do is shut down and reset.

    "It resets the circuit to its original energy state," Austin said.

    Solving the problem

    Using a machine that takes up the length of an entire basement, Vanderbilt researchers search for errors in various electrical circuits.

    "This is our proton and low-energy, heavy-ion beam … We can take different cocktails of particles and we accelerate them to a very high energy and then this beam line focuses those particles down and focuses them on the part that we are testing," Austin said.

    Based on the number of particles coming down the line and the number of errors found in the part, they will calculate an error rate.

    Once the errors are found then an error correction code can be written, but equipping devices with the ability to correct multiple errors comes with different issues.

    "It's a performance trade-off … If you're more fault tolerant you're also going to be slower," Austin said.


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    When asked about bitflips in larger software systems like those used in planes, which have systems that cannot afford the slowdown, Austin told us there are multiple systems running at the same time. If one is impacted by a cosmic ray the other two are still running seamlessly.

    Austin said because of the amount of cosmic radiation planes are exposed to, the Federal Aviation Administration made it mandatory to engineer planes for single-event effects in the 1960s.

    "I looked down and could see my chest muscle twitching," Marie Moe said.

    Moe is a security researcher who knows firsthand the impact cosmic rays can have 30,000 feet up.

    Moe's heart is run by a pacemaker. On a flight from Norway to the Netherlands she knew something wasn't working right.

    "My first thought was, maybe there's wrong with my pacemaker; maybe the wire is loose (and) touching a muscle or something," Moe said.

    Moe told Channel 2's Tom Regan a bitflip caused by cosmic radiation forced her device to go into backup mode.

    She said she feels more confident about her device now than before the event, knowing it was equipped for the bitflip error.

    A bitflip computer error was cited in expert testimony as a possible cause in a deadly crash of a 2005 Toyota Camry in Oklahoma. Toyota blamed driver error for the crash but the jury awarded millions to the plaintiffs.

    "It can happen in any kind of computer that doesn't have error correction in the hardware or monitoring in the software," Donald Slavik said.

    Slavik is an attorney who has filed subsequent lawsuits against Toyota for unintended acceleration crashes. He told Channel 2 his team tested for bitflips.

    "We found there was a potential in some vehicles and some memory chips to allow a bit to flip," Slavik said.

    In a statement, Toyota told Channel 2, "Plaintiffs' experts have not produced evidence of any real-world scenarios in which Toyota electronics can cause a high-speed unintended acceleration event."

    As for the Simpson's RAV4, Toyota stated: "We sympathize with anyone involved in an accident in one of our vehicles, including the Simpsons. … There is no evidence to suggest that this accident was the result of a software issue.

    Robert Simpson is still looking for an attorney to take his case.

    "I'd Like Toyota to talk to us in a fair and equal manner," Simpson said.

    Here is the full statement Toyota sent us:

    "We sympathize with anyone involved in an accident in one of our vehicles, including the Simpsons. An inspection of their vehicle after the accident showed that the accelerator pedal, throttle system and brake pedal were functioning properly. Further, a readout of the vehicle's event data recorder showed that the accelerator pedal was depressed forcefully at the time of this unfortunate accident. There is no evidence to suggest that this accident was the result of a software issue.

    "We continue to stand fully behind the safety of our vehicles and the integrity of Toyota's electronic throttle control system, which multiple independent evaluations have confirmed as safe. Importantly, despite years of unprecedented access to our source code, plaintiffs' experts who have testified against Toyota in litigation were never able to replicate unintended acceleration in a Toyota vehicle due to electronics in actual driving conditions. In fact, even when artificial faults are intentionally injected into our vehicle's software, a robust network of fail-safes closes the throttle as soon as the driver presses the brake pedal. Plaintiffs' experts have failed to demonstrate that their defect theories are anything more than pure speculation. The bottom line is that these claims reflect long ago de-bunked theories—Plaintiffs' experts have not produced evidence of any real-world scenarios in which Toyota electronics can cause a high-speed unintended acceleration event."

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