Toyota: Houston, we have a problem

Facing a public clamour to work out why some Toyota vehicles are mysteriously speeding out of control, the US safety authorities have called in extra brainpower: rocket scientists.

Nine Nasa engineers have been seconded to the transport department's safety regulator, to examine claims that electromagnetic interference or even cosmic rays might be behind the cases of unintended acceleration and several dozen fatal crashes.

Toyota says – and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concurs – that there is no evidence leading to anything other than simple mechanical faults. The car-maker says loose floor mats can slide over the accelerator pedal, or the pedals can become sticky, and it has recalled almost nine million vehicles to make adjustments.

However, media and political attention has focused on the possibility of electronics problems. In place of the cable that used to connect the accelerator pedal to the engine, new cars now use a computer and sensor system which communicates an accelerator pedal's position to the engine throttle, telling the car how fast it should go. Toyota is running expensive television and newspaper advertisements specifically rebutting the claims that the electronics are at fault. The ads say that all manufacturers of car now use similar systems. They feature employees declaring that they still drive their young children around in Toyotas. The recalls have already lost the firm $2bn in repair costs and lost sales.

The NHTSA said yesterday it was stepping up its investigations into the safety issue, because the publicity has led to more and more cases of supposed unintended acceleration being brought to its attention. Until now, the agency has had just two full-time engineers with electronics experience working on the issue.

Nasa's scientists would bring expertise in electronics, electromagnetic interference, software integrity and complex problem solving, Transport Department officials said.

Meanwhile in Japan yesterday, the Toyota president Akio Toyoda convened a 50-member committee on quality at the car-maker's headquarters in Toyota City, promising to change the culture of the company to respond more quickly to safety concerns.