What NHTSA/NASA Didn’t Consider re: Toyota’s Firmware

In a blog post yesterday (Unintended Acceleration and Other Embedded Software Bugs), I wrote extensively on the report from NASA’s technical team regarding their analysis of the embedded software in Toyota’s ETCS-i system. My overall point was that it is hard to judge the quality of their analysis (and thereby the overall conclusion that the software isn’t to blame for unintended accelerations) given the large number of redactions.

I need to put the report down and do some other work at this point, but I have a few other thoughts and observations worth writing down.

Insufficient Explanations

First, some of the explanations offered by Toyota, and apparently accepted by NASA, strike me as insufficent. For example, at pages 129-132 of Appendix A to the NASA Report there is a discussion of recursion in the Toyota firmware. “The question then is how to verify that the indirect recursion in the ETCS-i does in fact terminate (i.e., has no infinite recursion) and does not cause a stack overflow.”

“For the case of stack overflow, [redacted phrase], and therefore a stack overflow condition cannot be detected precisely. It is likely, however, that overflow would cause some form of memory corruption, which would in turn cause some bad behavior that would then cause a watchdog timer reset. Toyota relies on this assumption to claim that stack overflow does not occur because no reset occurred during testing.” (emphasis added)

I have written about what really happens during stack overflow before (Firmware-Specific Bug #4: Stack Overflow) and this explains why a reset may not result and also why it is so hard to trace a stack overflow back to that root cause. (From page 20, in NASA’s words: “The system stack is limited to just 4096 bytes, it is therefore important to secure that no execution can exceed the stack limit. This type of check is normally simple to perform in the absence of recursive procedures, which is standard in safety critical embedded software.”)

Similarly, “Toyota designed the software with a high margin of safety with respect to deadlines and timeliness. … [but] documented no formal verification that all tasks actually meet this deadline requirement.” and “All verification of timely behavior is accomplished with CPU load measurements and other measurement-based techniques.” It’s not clear to me if the NASA team is saying it buys those Toyota explanations or merely wanted to write them down. However, I do not see a sufficient explanation in this wording from page 132:

“The [worst case execution time] analysis and recursion analysis involve two distinctly different problems, but they have one thing in common: Both of their failure modes would result in a CPU reset. … These potential malfunctions, and many others such as concurrency deadlocks and CPU starvation, would eventually manifest as a spontaneous system reset.” (emphasis added)

Might not a deadlock, starvation, priority inversion, or infinite recursion be capable of producing a bit of “bad behavior” (perhaps even unintended acceleration) before that “eventual” reset? Or might not a stack overflow just corrupt one or a few important variables a little bit and that result in bad behavior rather than or before a result? These kinds of possibilities, even at very low probabilities, are important to consider in light of NASA’s calculation that the U.S.-owned Camry 2002-2007 fleet alone is running this software a cumulative one billion hours per year.

Paths Not Taken

My second observation is based upon reflection on the steps NASA might have taken in its review of Toyota’s ETCS-i firmware, but apparently did not. Specifically, there is no mention anywhere (unless it was entirely redacted) of:

  • rate monotonic analysis, which is a technique that Toyota could have used to validate the critical set of tasks with deadlines and higher priority ISRs (and that NASA could have applied in its review),
  • cyclomatic complexity, which NASA might have used as an additional winnowing tool to focus its limited time on particularly complex and hard to test routines,
  • hazard analysis and mitigation, as those terms are defined by FDA guidelines regarding software contained in medical devices, nor
  • any discussion or review of Toyota’s specific software testing regimen and bug tracking system.

Importantly, there is also a complete absence of discussion of how Toyota’s ETCS-i firmware versions evolved over time. Which makes and models (and model years) had which versions of that firmware? (Presumably there were also hardware changes worthy of note.) Were updates or patches ever made to cars once they were sold, say while at the dealer during official recalls or other types of service?

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