WASHINGTON — The federal inquiry 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 is expected to announce today, according to sources briefed on the plan who spoke to the Washington Post on condition of anonymity because it is not yet public.
A separate panel from the National Academy of Sciences will be convened to work on a broad 15-month review of vehicle electronics and incidents of unintended acceleration across the industry. That inquiry will cover the potential for problems in electronic controls, human error and mechanical failure.
Despite four congressional hearings on the sometimes fatal crashes, experts disagree whether defects in engine electronics have caused some of the incidents of runaway Toyotas. The increasing complexity of engines, which run on multiple microprocessors and lots of software, has complicated the discussion.
"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."
The studies are to be peer-reviewed and expected to cost about $3 million.
The Department of Transportation also is expected to announce that the agency's inspector general has been asked to review whether federal safety regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have the personnel to adequately handle the complex engineering questions that arise in such investigations.
Toyota and its hired experts say they have found no problems in the engine electronics. And at least some of the crashes have been attributed to floor mats that entrapped the accelerator.
But some drivers, including one who testified before Congress, say that their cars zoomed out of control, even in instances when the floor mat was not interfering.