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Tesla to Recall 135,000 Model S and Model X Vehicles for Failing Touchscreens Amid Pressure From the NHTSA

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【Summary】Electric automaker Tesla Inc. is recalling roughly 135,000 vehicles due to premature failures of the center-mounter touchscreen display used in the Model S sedan and Model X SUV after pressure from the NHTSA. The agency concluded the problems with the display pose a safety issue. Tesla was given the opportunity to voluntarily recall the vehicles before the U.S. auto safety agency issued a mandatory recall.

Eric Walz    Feb 02, 2021 10:00 AM PT
Tesla to Recall 135,000 Model S and Model X Vehicles for Failing Touchscreens Amid Pressure From the NHTSA
Flash memory wear out can cause Tesla's center-mounted touchscreen to fail on the Model S and X built through early 2018.

Electric automaker Tesla Inc. is recalling roughly 135,000 vehicles due to premature failures of the center-mounter touchscreen display. The vehicle affected include Tesla's flagship Model S sedan and Model X SUV.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced in November that it was expanding its probe into nearly 159,000 Tesla Model S sedans over reports of the center touchscreen display failures.

The NHTSA made its recall request in a formal letter sent to Tesla on Jan 13, Reuters reported. The agency concluded the 2012-2018 Model S and 2016-2018 Model X vehicles pose a safety issue. The request gives Tesla the opportunity to voluntarily recall the vehicles on its own, a preliminary step before the auto safety agency issues a mandatory recall.

The NHTSA gave Tesla until Jan 27 to respond to its request and the automaker agreed that same day to the recall, the company said. 

Tesla wrote in its filing with the NHTSA that "in the interest of bringing administrative closure to the investigation and to ensure the best ownership experience for our customers" and agreed to a voluntary recall.

The touchscreen display is used to access the bulk of the vehicle's controls. It's used for entertainment, maps, navigation, wipers, rear backup camera, as well as the vehicle's heating and air conditioning controls, so these systems are not accessible if the display unit fails, which can pose a safety risk.

The initial probe was opened in June 2020 after the NHTSA said it reviewed 12,523 claims and complaints from Tesla owners about display problems and random reboots while driving.

Tesla owners experienced erratic operation of the display, very slow response times, map rendering issues when using navigation, random reboots or a completely black screen. 

In November, the expanding investigation was upgraded to an "engineering analysis" the administration said, a step that's required before the NHTSA can make steps to formally recall a vehicle.

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The problem with Tesla's early touchscreen displays is known "memory wear out". The memory control unit (MCU) that supports the touchscreen display uses a Linux-based open source operating system running an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, which was first introduced back in 2011. The processor includes an integrated 8GB eMMC NAND flash memory device, NHTSA said.

The problem appears after continuous "read/write" cycles to the NAND flash memory. Although inexpensive flash memory is used in a wide variety of consumer electronic devices, one drawback for the auto industry is that it has a finite number of rear/write cycles, the NHTSA said.

Tesla used the same MCU in Model S and Model X vehicles produced through early 2018 and the memory wear out errors generally appear after about 3 to 4 years of use.

Tesla eventually solved the problem for vehicles built after 2018. These models use an Intel Atom microprocessor for the MCU. The Intel Atom MCU uses error-correcting code (ECC) memory that offers memory failure protection. This type of computer memory can detect and correct data corruption. ECC memory is typically used in critical applications where data corruption cannot be tolerated.

The NHTSA said last month that Tesla finally acknowledged that all of the older MCU's and displays "will inevitably fail given the memory device's finite storage capacity."

To help prevent the problem for the thousands of vehicles with the older eMMC flash memory, Tesla pushed a number of over-the-air updates in order to help "to mitigate the effects of MCU failure," the NHTSA said last year. 

Many complaints to the NHTSA said that Tesla required owners to pay for new units after the warranties expire, which can cost upwards of $1,500. Now Tesla said it will replace the defective part and reimburse those customers that paid out of pocket to replace the display.

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