The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) asked Tesla in a letter on Wednesday to recall 158,716 of its Model S and Model X vehicles manufactured before 2019, after owners complained of touchscreen glitches that led to the loss of several safety-related features.
The affected cars, made at Tesla’s Fremont, California, auto plant, include Tesla Model S sedans made between 2012 and 2018, and Model X SUVs in model years from 2016 to 2018.
Tesla can refuse to conduct the recall, but would have to present a full explanation of why to NHTSA, which could then propose further action. A recall of 158,716 vehicles would represent around 10% of Tesla’s lifetime reported production through the end of 2020. Tesla produced its millionth electric vehicle in Mar. 2020, CEO Elon Musk tweeted at the time, and in the last three quarters of 2020 the company produced more than 400,000 additional vehicles.
News of the letter was previously reported by Reuters.
The memory devices in some Tesla MCUs have a limited “write cycle,” which means they — and therefore the media control unit itself — won’t work well, or at all, after they hit a certain number of program or erase cycles.
Owners of affected Tesla vehicles previously told CNBC that the display on their media control units (or MCUs) would sometimes go blank, in part or in whole. The touchscreen issues interfered with drivers’ ability to use heat, air conditioning, defrost and defogging systems in their cars, or to use their rear view cameras and Tesla Autopilot features while parking and driving.
In the letter, sent to Tesla’s vice president of legal Al Prescott, the federal vehicle safety authority wrote that Tesla’s MCU issues could increase the risk of drivers crashing due to the “possible loss of audible chimes, driver sensing, and alerts” that are part of Tesla Autopilot, the company’s advanced driver assistance system.
Media control unit failure rates were as high as 17% in older Tesla Model S vehicles (made from 2012 to 2015) and as high as 4% for cars made by Tesla from 2016 to 2018, the letter said. And the MCU failures are expected to increase as cars age and remain in use, NHTSA said, citing Tesla projections.
“Given Tesla’s projects of MCU repairs, even MY [model year] 2018 subject vehicles will experience 100% failure of the MCU within approximately 10 years,” NHTSA investigators wrote.
Tesla previously offered a “warranty expansion” to assuage customers upset over the defect. As CNBC reported then, some owners who had paid for media control unit replacements out of pocket would be able to recoup their costs under the expanded warranty.