NHTSA asks Tesla to recall 159,000 cars over touchscreen failure

Ronan Glon
·2-min read

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has asked Tesla to recall 158,716 examples of the Model S and the Model X to fix or replace the touchscreen, which is also known as the media control unit (MCU). Government officials aren't concerned about motorists not being able to blast goat bleats at other drivers, but they explained that driving around without a touchscreen is a safety hazard that increases the risk of a crash.

In a letter sent to Tesla's legal department, the NHTSA wrote that its investigation revealed many examples of the Model S and the Model X built between the 2012 and the 2018 model years are equipped with an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor that features an integrated 8GB eMMC NAND flash memory device. It's this part that fails, and it takes all touchscreen-based functionalities with it, leaving motorists without a rear-view camera and without the ability to turn on the defroster or the defogger. Investigators also noted the problem has an adverse affect on Autopilot.

Internal documents sent to NHTSA by Tesla revealed a touchscreen failure rate of 14.2% to 17.3% for examples of the Model S built between the 2012 and the 2015 model years, and of 1.9% to 4.1% for cars built between 2016 and 2018. However, investigators stressed that they expect failure rates will accelerate in the coming years as the cars age, and they added that Tesla's projection models confirm this hypothesis.

"As the vehicles continue to in use [sic], more memory blocks are subsequently consumed, shortening the life of the 8GB eMMC device leading to inevitable failure of the MCU. Given Tesla's projects [sic] of MCU repairs, even MY 2018 subject vehicles will experience 100% failure of the MCU within approximately 10 years," the letter said.

Like all processors, Nvidia's Tegra 3 unit has a finite lifespan. Its flash memory device can withstand about 3,000 program-erase cycles before it needs to be replaced. Investigators found getting to that point takes five or six years, a timeframe that it labeled insufficient considering that the life expectancy of a modern car is much higher.

In other words, simply replacing a dead touchscreen with a new, identical unit doesn't satisfy regulators. Tesla began addressing the problem in November 2020 by taking out the faulty 8GB eMMC and installing a longer-lasting 64GB unit. In theory, it could solve the issue by putting this part in all affected cars.

Tesla hasn't commented on the request. It can accept the NHTSA's findings and recall the affected cars, or it can appeal the decision. It has until January 27, 2021, to reply.

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