Tesla has been asked to recall 158,000 Model S sedans and Model X SUVs due to potential failures of their touchscreens, a problem that could make it difficult to see or control critical vehicle functions.
Owners have been reporting for some time that the screens in their Tesla battery-electric vehicles suddenly fail, a problem that has been linked to 8GB memory chips used to control the displays. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the automaker “confirmed that all units will inevitably fail.”
The move by NHTSA comes after a presentation by Tesla addressing the problem. But the automaker, despite confirming a defect exists, did not move on its own to voluntarily order a recall. The carmaker has a history of resisting federal safety efforts but also has found itself cited for problems on numerous occasions.
A probe was launched by federal regulators last November after NHTSA received more than 12,000 complaints from owners of the Model S and the Model X. They described sudden failures of the laptop computer-sized touchscreens that are a key element in all Tesla vehicles. The displays do more than operate infotainment technology. They show things like vehicle speed, as well as rearview cameras when the vehicles are shifted into reverse. The screens also replace many conventional buttons and switches, meaning numerous functions cannot be operated if they fail to work.
Preliminary reports targeted Tesla products using NVIDIA processors and an 8 gigabyte flash memory device known as an eMMC NAND. But the memory systems have a limited capacity and lifecycle. Once exceeded, they fail, taking down the Tesla display screen.
As it opened its investigation last November, NHTSA stated that, “The data show failure rates over 30% in certain build months and accelerating failure trends after three to four years in service.”
This week, the agency updated that to note that “during our review of the data, Tesla provided confirmation that all units will inevitably fail given the memory device’s finite storage capacity.”
In similar situations, other automakers have issued recalls voluntarily, NHTSA told Tesla, but the carmaker made no move to act on its own, leading the safety agency to issue its own request.
It covers 158,000 vehicles in total, including Model S sedans produced between 2012 and 2018, as well as Model X SUVs produced from 2016 to 2018.
Tesla has until Jan. 27 to contest the request for a recall. If it does not accept the agency’s move, the automaker must offer “a full explanation of its decision.” Tesla could eventually force the case into the courts if it continues to refuse.
A request for comment was sent to several officials with the automaker. As has become the norm for Tesla, no response has been received.
The automaker did announce a “warranty adjustment program” covering owners of the two vehicles built before March 2018, when changes were made to the display technology. At the time, Tesla issued a statement noting that it was “aware that this component may malfunction due to accumulated wear.”
It has not explained why a full recall has not been ordered, especially considering it is well aware that all of the display systems eventually will fail.
The automaker has frequently pushed back on safety related issues, including those involving crashes of vehicles using the semi-autonomous Autopilot system. Federal regulators from NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board have cited Tesla’s technology as a factor in several fatal incidents.
But NHTSA did clear Tesla in a separate investigation completed this month. The agency absolved the automaker of blame in a series of crashes initially blamed on “sudden acceleration,” owners claiming the vehicles suddenly lurched out of control without their use of the throttle.
The automaker set a milestone in 2020, global deliveries reaching a record of just short of CEO Elon Musk’s 500,000 target. But some question how well Tesla might do going forward. The carmaker has ambitious goals, with two new assembly plants soon set to open. But it also faces a flood of new competition from products like the Volkswagen ID.4, the Chevrolet Bolt EUV and GMC Hummer and the Ford Mustang Mach-E SUV that this week was named North American Utility Vehicle of the Year.
Tesla also has been harshly called out for quality problems by the likes of influential, third-party analysts like J.D. Power and Consumer Reports. Power last year listed Tesla as having the worst initial quality of any brand it studied. The consumer magazine listed it as second-to-worst but reported major, ongoing quality and reliability problems with the Model X SUV. The screen failures contributed to that assessment.