With federal safety regulators breathing down its back, Tesla has agreed to recall nearly 135,000 battery-electric vehicles equipped with touchscreens that are prone to unexpectedly failure – which could make it difficult for motorists to operate the vehicles and potentially lead to a crash.
The problem has been widely reported by owners and Tesla has been making free repairs on an ad hoc basis, but that didn’t satisfy the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which felt that the screens should be replaced before they fail, avoiding the chance that drivers would be left at risk.
Tesla uses its laptop computer-sized displays to operate virtually all vehicle functions and such failures could make it difficult to see what gear a vehicle is operating in, as well as being able to use its backup camera. And because the driver could lose the ability to control the vehicle’s climate control system – including front and rear window defoggers, NHTSA warned the problem “may decrease the driver’s visibility in inclement weather.”
The recall covers two of Tesla’s original product lines, a total of 134,951 Model S sedans and Model X SUVs.
The safety agency has been looking into the touchscreen problem since last June – upgrading the probe in November after receiving 12,523 reports related to the problem.
It took the unusual step of requesting a recall in a letter sent to the EV manufacturer on Jan. 13. That followed discussed between Tesla and NHTSA officials, including a presentation that, regulators said, “confirmed that all units will inevitably fail.”
What has become known as the “eMMC failure” issue involves the displays that are ubiquitous in all Tesla vehicles but, in particular, those used by 2012-2018 Model S sedans and 2016-2018 Model X SUVs. They rely on NVIDIA processors and an 8 gigabyte flash memory device known as an eMMC NAND. The memory systems have a limited capacity and lifecycle. Once exceeded, they fail, taking down the Tesla display screen.
When it launched the probe in November, NHTSA announced that, “The data show failure rates over 30% in certain build months and accelerating failure trends after three to four years in service.”
Early on, Tesla had been charging owners for repairs if their vehicles were out of warranty when the screens failed. The carmaker subsequently began making all repairs for free but, until now, had declined to proactively replace the displays until they did fail – something it knew would happen on all of the affected vehicles eventually.
The automaker tried to downplay the risks a failure could cause by stating that, “the driver can perform a shoulder check and use the mirrors. If the screen is not visible to control the climate control and defroster settings, the driver will be able to manually clear the windshield.”
The automaker also advised owners of the affected vehicles that it had released a software update that would maintain at least some critical functions in the event of a touchscreen failure. If the update were installed, “then the rearview backup camera will remain available, the exterior turn signal lighting will remain functional, and the windshield defogging and defrosting controls will automatically default to a preset cabin temperature to ensure windshield visibility,” Tesla said, while warning that vehicles that weren’t updated faced “possible malfunctions.
While Tesla resisted, until now, recalling the vehicles in the U.S., it did take such a step already in China, its second-largest market.
The touchscreen issue raises further concerns among safety advocates about Tesla’s extreme reliance on technology without offering any backup. That approach was underscored last month when the automaker announced that the new, super high-performance version of the Model S, the Plaid+ edition, will adopt a squared-off, yoke-style steering wheel devoid of manual turn signals. According to Tesla, the vehicle will intuit when a driver is about to make a turn. It has also said the vehicle itself will know when it needs to shift into forward or reverse.
This isn’t the first time the automaker has had a run-in with federal safety regulators. And it has been cited on several occasions for playing at least a partial role in serious, and sometimes fatal, crashes involving its Autopilot system. With the new Biden administration expected to call for increased diligence by NHTSA and other regulators, it could mean closer scrutiny for Tesla as it continues to push the boundaries of technology in its vehicles.