More than 8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles have been recalled worldwide (including the 2010 Prius), and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has linked at least 52 deaths to unexpected acceleration in these vehicles. Although floormats and gas pedals have been blamed, no one has yet been able to pinpoint the root of this deadly and costly problem. Federal regulators are now looking at a new culprit: cosmic radiation. An anonymous tipster led regulators to start investigating the impact that energy particles from space may have on sensitive microprocessors, the type that run many functions in modern cars.Wired points us to a thorough article in LiveScience that explains how Toyota has led the auto industry in using advanced processor chips to run a growing list of features in cars. Mechanical components are quickly being replaced with microchips. But the binary code in chips can be corrupted by energy particles that filter in from space. The Earth's atmosphere is pelted by high energy particles emitted by supernovas. Many of these particles are filtered by the atmosphere, but secondary particles do regularly sprinkle down. The rays can corrupt a microprocessor's code in what's called a "single event upset."
LiveScience notes that the military and aerospace industries have long known about the effects of cosmic rays on computation, but automakers have paid little mind. While cosmic interference may not get Toyota off the hook, it may lead to much wider implications for the auto industry as it moves towards an ever-more computer-based paradigm. Companies producing fully electric vehicles and drive-by-wire systems may need to follow cues of the aerospace industry and protect their cars (and occupants) from celestial meddling.