Unable to establish itself if electronic gremlins are a cause of some unintended acceleration incidents in Toyotas, the US Department of Transport has asked the National Academy of Sciences and NASA to help.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement the National Academy of Sciences – an independent body using top scientific experts – will examine the broad subject of unintended acceleration and electronic vehicle controls across the entire automotive industry.

Separately, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is the Department of Transportation’s auto safety agency, has enlisted NASA engineers with expertise in areas such as computer controlled electronic systems, electromagnetic interference and software integrity to help tackle the issue of unintended vehicle acceleration in Toyotas.

“We are determined to get to the bottom of unintended acceleration,” said LaHood. “For the safety of the American driving public, we must do everything possible to understand what is happening. And that is why we are tapping the best minds around.”

LaHood has also asked the Department of Transportation Inspector General (IG) to review whether NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigation (ODI) has the necessary resources and systems to identify and address safety defects in future.

The National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council will examine the broad subject of unintended acceleration and electronic vehicle controls across the entire industry over the course of 15 months. This will not be limited to Toyota, but will cover all manufacturers. A panel of experts will review industry and government efforts to identify possible sources of unintended acceleration, including electronic vehicle controls, human error, mechanical failure and interference with accelerator systems. The experts will look at software, computer hardware design, electromagnetic compatibility and electromagnetic interference. The panel will make recommendations to NHTSA on how its rulemaking, research and defect investigation activities may help ensure the safety of electronic control systems in motor vehicles.

The NHTSA review of the electronic throttle control systems in Toyotas is to be completed by late summer. NHTSA has brought in NASA engineers and other experts in subjects such as electromagnetic compatibility as part of a shorter-term review of the systems used in Toyota vehicles to determine whether they contain any possible flaws that would warrant a defect investigation. NASA’s expertise in electronics, hardware, software, hazard analysis and complex problem solving ensures this review will be comprehensive. Currently there are nine experts from NASA assisting NHTSA, and additional personnel will join the team if needed.

Both studies – from the National Academy of Sciences and from NHTSA – will be peer reviewed by scientific experts. The total cost of the two studies is expected at about US$3m, including the cost of purchasing cars that have allegedly experienced unintended acceleration to be studied.

The Department of Transportation Inspector General will assess whether the NHTSA Office of Defects Investigation conducted an adequate review of complaints of alleged unintended acceleration reported to NHTSA from 2002 to the present. The IG will also determine whether ODI had the appropriate number of personnel and staff expertise to assess and address the technical issues raised by the complaints and whether the data was sufficient to identify specific defects that caused unintended acceleration. That information will help DOT officials determine whether more resources are necessary for pursuing defect investigations.

“We are bringing the best minds and talents to resolve this issue,” said NHTSA administrator David Strickland. “We will not rest until we have identified and addressed any potential vehicle-related causes of unintended acceleration.”

The US announcement came as Toyota convened the first meeting of its new special committee for global quality, which announced it would incorporate a brake override system (BOS) into new production models, starting worldwide in 2010. The BOS will automatically reduce engine power when the brake and accelerator pedals are applied simultaneously.

Chaired by TMC president Akio Toyoda, the committee includes newly-appointed chief quality officers (CQO) for North America, Europe, China, Asia, Oceania, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Also present at the meeting were representatives from TMC’s business operations and others.

TMC said its global committee would “investigate the causes of quality problems, including those that necessitate recalls, and re-examine the factors that affect quality in every phase of design work, manufacturing, marketing and service”.

“Safety executives,” will act on behalf of the CQOs concerning any recalls on a global basis. TMC said the CQO teams and other representatives who participate in recall decision-making will “promptly share information on customer complaints, defects and recalls with the global team members”.

News agency Reuters noted that questions have been raised about whether NHTSA over the years adequately handled investigations into motorist and other complaints of possible electronic throttle problems.

Critics have said NHTSA, which at the time of congressional hearings last month on the Toyota issue only had two electrical engineers on its staff, lacked the expertise and resources to assess the company’s claims that its vehicles could not fail.

LaHood has maintained that NHTSA could handle the analysis itself, but said suggestions from lawmakers at congressional hearings prompted him to consider outside help.

“We’ve used them before. We’ve heard that they may have some influence,” LaHood said of his decision to ask NASA to help.