Archive for March, 2011

Save Big on Embedded Systems Conference Registration

Monday, March 21st, 2011 Michael Barr

The big Embedded Systems Conference 2011 Silicon Valley show opens six weeks from today. This should have been my fourteenth consecutive year as a speaker, but I have an unfortunate calendar conflict that first week of May.

Judging from the speaker and course lineups, it looks like it’s going to be a really great ESC conference again this year. I strongly encourage you to go if you can. Here are five great reasons to register ASAP:

#1: IT’S CHEAPER THIS WEEK! – The current early registration pricing expires this Friday, March 25. Registering now will save you $400 off the onsite price of the All Access, 4-Day, and 3-Day Conference Passes or $200 off a 1-Day Pass. (Note there are also group discounts available.)

#2: USE PROMO CODE “BARR20” TO SAVE AN ADDITIONAL 20%! – During the registration process there is a place to enter a “Promo Code”. No matter what conference package you select, you will receive an additional 20% off the price if you use my special code “BARR20”. For the All Access Conference Pass that’s an additional $479 discount on top of the $400 above. Wow!

#3: GRAND PRIZE: FREE SEAT AT EMBEDDED SOFTWARE BOOT CAMP – Many people have told me that their company only has a set amount of budget for training and conferences per year and that the Embedded Systems Conference and Embedded Software Boot Camp have to compete for those funds. Well, now you can have your cake and eat it to. One lucky ESC conference attendee will be selected at random to also attend the Embedded Software Boot Camp for free (minimum $2,995 value). (To be entered to win, you must use the “BARR20” promo code when you register.)

#4: 20 RUNNER-UP PRIZES: EMBEDDED C CODING STANDARD BOOK – Twenty lucky ESC conference attendees will be selected at random to receive a print copy of the Embedded C Coding Standard book. (To be entered to win, you must use the “BARR20” promo code when you register.)

#5: THE CONFERENCE CONTENT – Use the ESC Schedule Builder to choose from hundreds of training sessions by dozens of expert speakers spread across 25 technical tracks. To this depth and breadth of topics this year are added the 6th Annual Multicore Expo and Texas Instrument’s Technology Day 2011 programs. Wow!

Do Inline Function Bodies Belong in C Header Files?

Monday, March 21st, 2011 Michael Barr

Earlier today I received the following question by e-mail from Brazil:

I am trying to conform to the rules in your Embedded C Coding Standard book and I just ran into what may be a problem with Rule 6.3.a. Instead of using function-like macros, I’m using inline functions, as you recommend. However, my compiler (avr-gcc) gives an error when I declare a function to be inline at both header and source file. If I put both the inline declaration and function body inside the header file it works fine. This fixes my compiler problem, but isn’t it a bad practice to place code inside the header file?

This is a good question, as it seems at first to be about a conflict between the Embedded C Coding Standard and what I refer to as “Generally Accepted Programming Principles” (i.e., GAPP not GAAP). It’s also approaching a frequently asked question, so I thought it’d also be good to share my e-mailed answer here.

The inline keyword is a part of the C++ programming language that was added late to C (in C99). In C++, most programs are built out of classes–with best practice dictating one header file per class definition. Any C++ function may be declared inline. But if the inline function is a public member function (a.k.a., public method) of the class it is necessary to place the code for the inline function inside the header file. This is so that all of the other modules that use the class can see the code they need to have placed inline by the compiler.

Of course, placing the body of any function inside a header file conflicts with GAPP for the C programming language. Here’s how you should decide what to do:

IF the inline function is a “helper” function that’s only used inside one C module, THEN put it in that .c file only and don’t mention it in the header file. This is consistent with Rule 4.2.c, which says that “The header file shall identify only the [functions] … about which it is strictly necessary for other modules to know.”

IF, however, the inline function operates on the abstract data type defined in the header file and must be visible to two or more modules, THEN put the body of the inline function inside the header file. There is no rule in the Embedded C Coding Standard that strictly prohibits this, so there is no conflict.

See my earlier post What Belongs in a C .h Header File? for additional suggestions concerning header file contents.

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

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011 Michael Barr

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?

Unintended Acceleration and Other Embedded Software Bugs

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011 Michael Barr

Last month, NHTSA and the NASA Engineering and Safety Center (NESC) published reports of their joint investigation into the causes of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. NASA’s multi-disciplinary NESC technical team was asked, by Congress, to assist NHTSA by performing a review of Toyota’s electronic throttle control and the associated embedded software. In carefully worded concluding statement, NASA stated that it “found no electronic flaws in Toyota vehicles capable of producing the large throttle openings required to create dangerous high-speed unintended acceleration incidents.” (The official reports and a number of supporting files are available for download at

The first thing you will notice if you join me in trying to judge the technical issues for yourself are the redactions: pages and pages of them. In parts and entirely for unexplained reasons, this report on automotive electronics reads like the public version of a CIA Training Manual. I’ve observed that approximately 193 of the 1,061 pages released so far feature some level of redaction (via black boxes, which obscure from a single number, word, or phrase to a full table, page, or section). The redactions are at their worst in NASA’s Appendix A, which describes NASA’s review of Toyota’s embedded software in detail. More than half of all the pages with redactions (including the vast majority of fully redacted tables, pages, and sections) are in that Appendix.

Despite the redactions, we can still learn some interesting facts about Toyota’s embedded software and NASA’s technical review of the same. The bulk of the below outlines what I’ve been able to make sense of in about two days of reading. Throughout, my focus is on embedded software inside the electronic throttle control, so I’m leaving out considerations of other potential causes, including EMI (which NASA also investigated). First a little background on the investigation.


Although the inquiry was taken to examine unintended acceleration reports across all Toyota, Scion, and Lexus models, NASA focused its technical inquiry almost entirely on Toyota Camry models equipped with the Electronic Throttle Control System, Intelligent (ETCS-i). The Camry has long been among the top cars bought in the U.S., so this choice probably made finding relevant complaint data and affected vehicles easier for NHTSA. (BTW, NASA says the voluntary complaint database shows both that unintended accelerations were reported before the introduction of electronic throttle control and that press coverage and Congressional hearings can increase the volume of complaints.)

According to a press release by the company made upon publication of the NHTSA and NASA reports, Toyota’s ETCS-i has been installed in “more than 40 million cars and trucks sold around the world, including more than 16 million in the United States.” Undoubtedly, ETCS-i has also “made possible significant safety advances such as vehicle stability control and traction control.” But as with any other embedded system there have been refinements made through the years to both the electronics and the embedded software.

Though Toyota apparently made available, under agreed terms and via its attorneys, schematics, design documents, and source code “for multiple Camry years and versions” (Appendix A, p. 9) as well as many of the Japanese engineers involved in its design and evolution, NASA only closely examined one version. In NASA’s words, “The area of emphasis will be the 2005 Toyota Camry because this vehicle has a consistently high rate of reported ‘UA events’ over all Toyota models and all years, when normalized to the number of each model and year, according to NHTSA data.” (p. 7) Except as otherwise stated, everything else in this column concerns the electronics and firmware found in that year, make, and model.

Event Data Recorders

Event Data Recorder (EDR) is the generic term for the automotive equivalent of an aircraft black box flight data recorder. EDRs were first installed in cars in the early 1990s and have increased in use as well as sophistication in the years since. Generally speaking, the event data recorder is an embedded system residing within the airbag control module located in the front center of the engine compartment. The event data recorder is connected to other parts of the car’s electronics via the CAN bus and is always monitoring vehicle speed, the position of the brake and accelerator pedals, and other key parameters.

In the event of an impossibly high (for the vehicle operating normally) acceleration or deceleration sensor reading, Toyota’s latest event data recorders save the prior five 1Hz samples of these parameters in a non-volatile memory area. Once saved, an event record can be read over the car’s On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) port (or, in the event of a more severe accident, directly from the airbag control module) via a special cable and PC software. If the airbag actually deploys, the event record will be permanently locked. The last 2 or 3 (depending on version) lesser “bump” records are also stored, but may be overwritten in a FIFO manner.

This investigation of Toyota’s unintended acceleration marked the first time that anyone from NHTSA had ever read data from a Toyota event data recorder. (Toyota representatives apparently testified in Congress that there had previously just been one copy of the necessary PC software in the U.S.) As part of this study, NHTSA validated and used tools provided by Toyota to extract historical data from 52 vehicles involved in incidents of unintended acceleration, with acknowledged bias toward geographically reachable recent events. After reviewing driver and other witness statements and examining said black box data, NHTSA concluded that 39 of these 52 events were explainable as “pedal misapplications.” That’s a very nice way of saying that whenever the driver reported “stepping on the brake” he or she had pressed the accelerator pedal by mistake. Figure 5 of a supplemental report describing these facts portrays an increasing likelihood of such incidents with driver age vs. the bell curve of Camry ownership by age.

Note that no record is apparently ever made, in the event data recorder or elsewhere, of any events or state changes within the ETCS-i firmware. So-called “Diagnostic Trouble Codes” concerning sensor and other hardware failures are recorded in non-volatile memory and the presence of one or more such codes enables the “Check Engine” light on the dashboard. But no logging is done of significant software faults, including but not limited to watchdog-initiated resets.

Engine Control Module

ETCS-i is a collection of components and features that was changed in the basic engine design when Toyota switched from mechanical to electronic throttle control. (Electronic throttle control is also known as “throttle-by-wire”.) Toyota has used two different types of pedal sensors in the ETCS-i system, always in a redundant fashion. The earlier design, pre-2007, using potentiometers was susceptible to current leakage via growth of tin whiskers. Though this type of failure was not known to cause sudden high-speed behaviors, it did seem to be associated with a higher number of warranty claims. The newer pedal sensor design uses Hall effect sensors.

Importantly, the brakes are not a part of the ETCS-i system. In the 2005 Camry, Toyota’s brake pedal was mechanically controlled. (It may still be.) It appears this is one of the reasons the NASA team felt comfortable with their conclusion that driver reports of wide open throttle behavior that could not be stopped with the brakes were not caused by software failures (alone). “The NESC team did not find an electrical path from the ETCS-i that could disable braking.” (NASA Report, p. 15) It is clear, though, that power assisted brakes lose the enabling vacuum pressure when the throttle is wide open and the driver subsequently pumps the brakes; thus any system failure that opened the throttle could indirectly make bringing the vehicle to a stop considerably harder.

The Engine Control Module at the heart of the ETCS-i consists of a Main-CPU and a Sub-CPU located within a pair of ASICs. The Sub-CPU contains a set of A/D converters that translates raw sensor inputs, such as voltages VPA and VPA1 from the accelerator pedal, into digital position values and sends them to the Main-CPU via a serial interface. In addition, the Sub-CPU monitors the outputs of the Main-CPU and is able to reset (in the manner of a watchdog timer) the Main-CPU.

The Main-CPU is reported to be a V850E1 microcontroller, which is “a 32-bit RISC CPU core for ASIC” designed by Renesas (nee NEC). The V850E1 processor has a 64MB program address space, which is part of an overall 4GB linear address space. The Main-CPU also keeps tabs on the Sub-CPU and can reset it if anything is found wrong.

NASA reports that the embedded software in the Main-CPU is written (mostly) in ANSI C and compiled using a GreenHills C compiler (Appendix A, p. 14). Furthermore, an OSEK-compliant real-time operating system with fixed-priority preemptive scheduling is used to manage a redacted (but apparently larger than ten, based on the size of the redaction) number of real-time tasks. The actual firmware development (design, coding and unit testing) was outsourced to Denso (p. 19). Toyota apparently performed integration testing and ran several commercial and in-house static analysis tools, including QAC (p. 20). The code was written in English, with Japanese comments and design documents, and follows a proprietary Toyota naming convention/coding standard that predates but half overlaps with the 1998 version of MISRA-C.

Are There Bugs in Toyota’s Firmware?

In the NASA Report’s executive summary it is made clear that “because proof that the ETCS-i caused the reported UAs was not found does not mean it could not occur.” (NASA Report, p. 17) The report also states that NASA’s analysis was time-limited and top-down, remarking “The Toyota Electronic Throttle Control (ETC) was far more complex than expected involving hundreds of thousands of lines of software code” and that this affected the quality of a planned peer review.

It’s stated that “Reported [Unintended Accelerations (UAs)] are rare events. Typically, the reporting of UAs is about 1/100,000 vehicles/year.” But there are millions of cars on the road, and so NHTSA has collected some “831 UA reports for Camry” alone. “Over one-half of the reported events described large (greater than 25 degrees) high-throttle opening UAs of unknown cause” (NASA Report, p. 14), the causes of which are never fully explained in these reports.

The NASA apparently identified some lesser firmware bugs themselves, saying “[our] logic model verifications identified a number of potential issues. All of these issues involved unrealistic timing delays in the multiprocessing, asynchronous software control flow.” (Appendix A, p. 11) NASA also spent time simulating possible race conditions due to worrisome “recursively nested interrupt masking” (pp, 44-46); note, though, that simulation success is not a sufficient proof of lack of races. As well, the NASA team seems to recommend “reducing the amount of global data” (p. 38) and eliminating “dead code” (p. 40).

Additionally, the redacted text in other parts of Appendix A seems to be obscuring that:

  • The standard gcc compiler version 4″ generated a redacted number of warnings (probably larger than 100) about the code, in 11 different warning categories. (p. 25)
  • Coverity version 4.2″ generated a redacted number of warnings (probably larger than 154) about the code, in 10 different warning categories. (p. 27)
  • Codesonar version 3.6p1″ generated a redacted number of warnings (probably larger than 136) about the code, in 10 different warning categories.
  • Uno version 2.12″ generated a redacted number of warnings (probably larger than 72) about the code, in 9 different warning categories.
  • The code contained at least 347 deviations from a subset of 14 of the MISRA-C rules.
  • The code contained at least 243 violations of a subset of 9 of the 10 “Power of 10–Rules for Developing Safety Critical Code,” which was published in IEEE Computer in 2006 by NASA team member Gerard Holzmann.

It looks to me like Figure 6.2.3-1 of the NASA Report (p. 30) shows that UA complaints filed with NHTSA increased in the year of introduction of electronic throttle control for the vast majority of Toyota, Scion, and Lexus models–and that complaint counts have remained higher but generally declined over time since those transitions years. Such a complaint data pattern is perhaps consistent with firmware bugs. (Note to NHTSA: It would be helpful to see this same chart normalized by number of vehicles sold by model year and with the rows sorted by the year of ETC introduction. It would also be nice to see a chart of ETCS-i firmware versions and updates, which vehicles they apply to, and the dates on which each was put into new production vehicles or distributed through dealers.)

Final Thoughts

I am not privy to all of the facts considered by the NHTSA or NASA review teams and thus cannot say if I agree or disagree with their overall conclusion that embedded software bugs are not to blame for reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. How about you? If you’ve spotted something I missed in the reports from NHTSA or NASA, please send me an e-mail or leave a comment below. Let’s keep the conversation going.