The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has sent a letter to Tesla asking that it recall nearly 160,000 Model S and Model X vehicles for a fault that could (and eventually will) cause several Federally-mandated systems to stop working.
According to the NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation (ODI), the problem lies with the Media Control Unit that runs the central display screen. If it fails, the screen goes dark, which means that neither the backup camera nor the climate controls will be displayed—and since Tesla displays its climate controls on the center screen, that means there’s no way to turn on the defroster or defogger. (A rear-view camera and defroster are required by Federal law. This is why most cars, even those with video-screen climate controls, have a separate defroster button.) ODI says a failed MCU can also affect other safety systems, including Autopilot and the turn signal clickers.
The problem lies with the Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and its 8 GB of flash memory. Tesla installed the processor in about 158,000 2012-2018 Model S and 2016-2018 Model Y vehicles. The flash memory, which is accessed when the car is started, has a lifespan of about 3,000 program-erase cycles. According to the NHTSA, that equates to 5-6 years of normal usage before the system packs up. The agency says Tesla has confirmed that all MCUs will inevitably fail due to the design, and the NHTSA says it has already identified some 12,588 incidents related to MCU replacements.
Right now, the NHTSA is only requesting that Tesla issues a recall; it has not made a final decision that the affected Model S and Xs have a safety-related defect. Tesla has the opportunity to respond to the ODI and make the argument that the cars aren’t defective, though, given the citation of Tesla’s own data, that seems unlikely. If Tesla doesn’t issue the recall or provide a satisfactory response, the NHTSA can declare the issue a defect and force a recall.
This isn’t Tesla’s first go-round with the NHTSA or recalls. As of last year, the NHTSA was investigating several Tesla models in response to unintended acceleration complaints. This past fall, China recalled 50,000 Model S and X vehicles for defects in the suspension, though no recall was issued in the United States (Elon Musk defended the Model S against similar complaints in 2016, noting that the NHTSA found no safety issues and tweeting that some of the complaints were fraudulent.) The Model X has been recalled over a faulty third-row seat, while the Model S was recalled for loose seatbelts and weak seat brackets. Tesla’s first car, the Roadster, was recalled for potential fire risks.
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