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NASA to aid regulators in Toyota probe

By Ben Rooney, staff reporter

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Tuesday that his agency has enlisted scientists from NASA to help uncover whether electronic defects are to blame for unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has been criticized for lacking sufficient technological expertise, has recruited nine experts from NASA to help the agency understand how issues such as electromagnetic interference may have contributed to Toyota's acceleration issues.

Separately, the National Academy of Sciences will conduct a study of unintended acceleration and electronic vehicle controls across the entire automotive industry.

The total cost for both peer-reviewed studies will be about $3 million, the Department of Transportation said in a press release.

"For the safety of the American driving public, we must do everything possible to understand what is happening," LaHood said in a statement. "And that is why we are tapping the best minds around."

The moves come after a massive recall of Toyota vehicles for safety issues, including instances when drivers were injured or killed when their car accelerated without warning. The recall sparked a series of congressional hearings into Toyota's quality controls and the government's ability to ensure driver safety.

"Toyota welcomes the opportunity for the National Academy of Sciences and NASA to weigh in on these discussions," said company spokeswoman Celeste Migliore.

"We expect they will bring a thorough and scientific approach to their examination of the issues," she added. "Separating fact from fiction can only be good for the motoring public and the industry as a whole."

Despite several hours of testimony from Toyota executives and federal safety officials, many questions remain about the role of certain electronic components in unintended acceleration.

Toyota has argued that the problems are mechanical and that its electronic systems are safe. But many lawmakers and some independent experts have charged that electronic defects can not be ruled out.

"We are confident in our vehicles and in our electronics," Migliore said. "We will lend our full support and cooperation to DOT and NHTSA as they moved forward."

NHTSA said it has brought in NASA engineers to study how electromagnetic interference could impact the electronic throttle control in Toyota vehicles. The NASA engineers will also provide expertise in electronics, hardware, software and hazard analysis. The study is expected to be completed by late summer.

While this is not the first time NASA has assisted another government agency in an investigation, such partnerships are relatively rare.

"It's not common, but not unique," said Keith Henry, a NASA spokesman.

He said NASA signed an agreement Friday with NHTSA to provide, among other things, engineering support and analysis. The nine engineers that are taking part in the investigation work for NASA's Engineering and Safety Center, he said, which was formed in 2004 to study the causes of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences will investigate the problem of unintended acceleration and electronic vehicle controls across the entire automotive industry. The study is expected to last 15 months.

As part of this study, NHTSA said a panel of experts will also review industry and government efforts to uncover the causes of unintended acceleration. The panel will then make recommendations to NHTSA based on its findings.

In addition, LaHood said the inspector general of the Department of Transportation will assess whether the NHTSA conducted an adequate review of complaints of alleged unintended acceleration going back to 2002. The inspector general will also investigate whether NHTSA staff had the technical expertise to address those complaints and if the agency needs more resources. To top of page

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