Regulators Demand Recall of 158,000 Tesla Vehicles

The United States’ National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued a mandatory recall of 158,000 of Tesla’s Model X and Model S vehicles due to faulty media control units. The recall impacts 2012-2018 Model S and 2016-2018 Model X vehicles that the NHTSA says “contain a defect related to motor vehicle safety.”

Tesla has until January 27 to either comply with the recall or provide a detailed report on why it disagrees with the NHTSA’s decision. Automobile manufacturers will often work with regulators when their vehicles are found to have a defect that might warrant a recall.

Tesla stock slid 0.71% to $848.32 in trading on the news of the latest recall, not that investors seem to be very rattled about a recall that might be an easy fix. Tesla had an excellent 2020, with a record number of vehicle deliveries and stock that put on a strong enough performance to gain entry into the S&P 500 index. The increase in Tesla’s stock price was enough to briefly put Elon Musk at the top of Bloomberg’s Billionaires list.

Tesla has previously issued recalls that include thousands of vehicles in China that had a manufacturing-related issue with the suspension that could cause it to crack in some extreme cases. It has also recalled vehicles in the United States that have an improperly installed bolt in the suspension or might have issues with the roof trim. In most cases, the issues could be fixed with the replacement of the affected parts and materials.

On the flip side, the NHTSA has also recently ruled that reported cases of sudden unintended acceleration may be due to driver error rather than a fault in Tesla vehicles.

The issue appears to be a defective touchscreen in the media control units, according to the hundreds of reports that the NHTSA has received. Many of the complaints from Tesla owners said that they were required to pay out of pocket to fix the issue even though Tesla expanded its warranty to include its onboard computer. The touchscreen contains a memory chip that can only handle a finite number of read/write operations before giving out, which disables the touchscreen. This typically takes about 3 to 4 years, depending on how much the vehicle and its MCU’s touchscreen are used.

Although the loss of the touchscreen on Tesla’s infotainment system might seem like a mere annoyance for Tesla owners, who see it as a status symbol among a growing number of choices in electric and hybrid vehicles, NHTSA made its ruling based on the resulting loss of functions such as the backup camera, window defogging, and audible alerts associated with Tesla’s safety features. The defogging issue seems to be a special concern for the regulatory agency, which cited the reduced visibility and increased risk of a crash that comes with fogged up windows.

“[D]uring our review of the data, Tesla provided confirmation that all units will inevitably fail given the memory device’s finite storage capacity,” NHTSA said of the issue in its communications with media outlets such as Reuters.

Although the report did note that Tesla attempted to mitigate the defect with software updates, the regulatory body says that the efforts were “procedurally and substantively” insufficient to make up for faulty hardware. The NHTSA cited recalls issued for similar defects in other automobiles’ models in its final report. Tesla has not issued a statement on the recall or responded to requests for comment.