This week, Tesla finally gave in to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s request to recall its Model S sedans and Model X SUVs over flash memory failures that will cause the cars’ signature 17-inch portrait-oriented central touchscreens to fail after a certain length of time—but not without pushback on the very definition of the word “defect,” according to a letter from Tesla’s legal department made public today.
Addressing federal regulators, Tesla Vice President of Legal Al Prescott made the case that the touchscreen failures didn’t constitute a defect worthy of a recall because the parts were only expected to last five to six years in the first place, which is certainly a novel strategy.
Prescott explained that the eMMC flash memory device behind the issues was only rated for so many cycles that they believe would last for the lifespan of the component:
“[The eMMC flash memory] is inherently subject to wear, has a finite life (as NHTSA itself acknowledges), and may need replacement during the useful life of the vehicle…While the wear rate is heavily influenced by the active use of the center display system, even more so when the vehicle is in drive or charging, given a reasonable average daily use of 1.4 cycles, the expected life would be 5-6 years. NHTSA has not presented any evidence to suggest that this expected life is outside industry norms.”
Further, Prescott argued that it was wrong for the NHTSA to assert that the touchscreen “should last at least the useful life of the vehicle, essentially double its expected lifespan.” The fact that the average age of vehicles on U.S. roads hit an all-time high of 11.6 years in 2020, per CNBC.
He went on to call the eMMC “state of the art” for the time when it was designed and claimed the NHTSA’s regulations around defective parts were “anachronistic,” pushing back further on the NHTSA’s lifespan expectations:
“[E]lectronic components are becoming increasingly more complex while, at the same time, the expected useful life of vehicles has grown substantially. It is economically, if not technologically, infeasible to expect that such components can or should be designed to last the vehicle’s entire useful life.”
While Prescott’s letter informed the NHTSA that Tesla would conduct a voluntary recall, it also made it crystal clear that the automaker wasn’t happy about it.
The fact that the flash memory device was only rated to handle half the lifespan of the average vehicle on the road raises numerous questions around new vehicles’ technology and planned obsolescence. If this was only expected to last five or six years, what else on the roads could fail earlier than consumers expect?
As the Washington Post notes, the way in which Teslas’ high-tech components wear could have dire consequences on the vehicles’ resale value. Unless there’s a way to recycle and reuse these throwaway components, the disposable nature of them could also leave a bad taste in eco-conscious consumers’ mouths.
Furthermore, why should consumers be expected to think that an internal component that’s required to access key safety features of the car should be a wear item? While Tesla has since added alerts that warn owners of a pending eMMC failure, a processor embedded in the internal components of a car isn’t something you can easily check on like a set of brake pads or tires, nor is it something that most consumers know to watch out for after so many miles of use.
The recall includes 134,951 Model S and Model X cars, making it Tesla’s biggest recall to date. It encompasses 2012 through 2018 Model S sedans as well as 2016 through 2018 Model X crossovers. This is fewer than the 158,000 cars requested by the NHTSA for recall, as Tesla excluded the vehicles that have already had memory upgrades or touchscreen replacements, reports the Washington Post.
Failures of the recalled memory chips are not the only issues that have dogged Model S and Model X touchscreens. Tesla CEO Elon Musk once bragged about sourcing the then-groundbreaking 17-inch screens outside of the usual automotive supply chain to save costs. Unfortunately, the screens weren’t built to handle the vibration loads and temperature fluctuations found in a car’s interior, causing them to prematurely yellow, bubble and even leak.
You can read Prescott’s full letter to the NHTSA here.
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