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Tougher regulation for cars' embedded systems of the essence

Posted: 02 Apr 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:safety-critical systems  embedded  electronic control 

Neither NHTSA, with its absence of software expertise, nor the NASA Engineering and Safety Center—to which NHTSA turned to study the Toyota problem—were able to pinpoint a software cause for unintended acceleration. Nor were they able to rule out the possibility.

The NASA researchers, who were both on a deadline and not allowed to study Toyota's source code, simply ran out of time, noted Barr.

Under court order, a team from the Barr Group was allowed into a specially built "code room" provided by Toyota. They were able to pinpoint at least one anomaly that could have caused Toyota accelerators to build up speed while disabling the brake system. Barr also found numerous Toyota violations of software design standards. Toyota, in many instances, even broke its own rules for safe design and system redundancy.

Patriot missiles, Therac-25, and others that failed

Many of these rules, and Toyota's subsequent actions, were either buried in corporate secrecy or covered over by corporate denial. "The answer is not to say it can't be the software, stick our heads in the sand," said Barr. If companies like Toyota examined themselves more rigorously, he added, and allowed "less code confidentiality," they wouldn't require as much regulatory scrutiny.

Barr cited past cases of "safety-critical systems" that failed but then were corrected when regulators stepped up their intensity and capabilities. After a series of radiation overexposures—including two fatalities—caused by a software glitch in a radiotherapy machine called the Therac-25, the Food and Drug Administration created an in-house team of software engineers to review every electronic medical device before its approval for use on patients.

In the case of the Therac-25, in the case of a software-misguided Patriot missile that killed 28 US troops during the Gulf war, and in Toyota's case, the companies responsible have invariably issued assurances about their exhaustive testing and cited "no other instances of similar damage."

Such assurances disregard the bugs that exist in every complicated system and the harm they can cause. "If you are overconfident of your software in a safety-critical system, that could be deadly," said Barr.

- David Benjamin
  EE Times

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