WASHINGTON - The federal probe into runaway Toyotas has resulted in enough scientific mystery that investigators have asked NASA scientists for help.
The nation's auto-safety regulators have tapped nine experts from the space agency to answer questions involving software, hardware and other electronics issues, the Department of Transportation announced Tuesday.
A separate panel from the National Academy of Sciences will be convened to work on a 15-month review of vehicle electronics and incidents of unintended acceleration across the industry. That probe will cover the potential for problems in electronic controls, human error and mechanical failure.
Despite four congressional hearings on the sometimes fatal crashes, experts continue to disagree whether defects in engine electronics have caused some of the Toyota runaways. The increasing complexity of engines, which run on multiple microprocessors and lots of software, has complicated the discussion.
According to Bloomberg News, the studies will focus attention on the reliability of computers that help run today's vehicles. Toyota, the world's largest automaker, has said it found no evidence that the electronic systems are at fault for sudden bursts of speed that led to a worldwide recall of more than 8 million cars and trucks. Consumer advocates and lawmakers have urged an investigation of vehicle electronics.
Congress "thought there was more to these issues, more to these problems with automobiles than just floor mats and sticky pedals," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Tuesday. "They felt electronics were a part of it. Even though our review does not show that and Toyota's review does not show that, we felt we needed to address what Congress's concerns are."
The studies are to be peer-reviewed and expected to cost about $3 million.
Toyota faces at least 27 lawsuits and at least 82 class-action cases linking electronic systems to deaths or injuries in crashes.
"This is exactly the right thing to do," Jeremy Anwyl, chief executive of the automotive Web site Edmunds.com, said of the broader approach. Edmunds.com has announced a $1-million prize for anyone who can pinpoint the cause in the engine. "It's a cross-industry problem, and cross-industry investigation is what is needed."