NHTSA Upgrades Safety Probe Into 159,000 Tesla Vehicles

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

On Monday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced it would be upgrading a probe into almost 159,000 Tesla Model S and Model X vehicles relating to touchscreen/memory issues that could result in a failure to comply with federal standards.

U.S. regulatory mandates stipulate that modern vehicles be required to have rear-camera displays to aid drivers traveling in reverse. The expanded investigation has tripled in size and now encompasses 2012-2018 model year Tesla Model S and 2016-2018 Model X vehicles, which may be eligible for a recall if the NHTSA sees fit.

While we cannot look into the crystal ball and make predictions, the failure rate of certain production runs seems rather high. According to Reuters, regulators noticed “failure rates over 30 percent in certain build months and accelerating failure trends after 3 to 4 years-in-service.” The problem appears related to ongoing issues with Tesla’s multimedia control unit (MCU) using Nvidia Corp. Tegra 3 processors. The automaker is subjecting them to a wild amount of data logging until they effectively burn themselves out — we’ve covered the company’s flash-memory problem at length if you’re interested.

From Reuters:

The flash devices have a finite lifespan based on the number of programs or erase cycles, NHTSA said.

Some complaints said failures could result in loss of charging ability and that other safety alerts could be impacted. One driver said he could not clear fogged windows because he could not change climate controls.

In total, NHTSA said it has reviewed 12,523 claims and complaints about the issue, which would impact roughly 8 percent of the vehicles under investigation.

Tesla said it has received 2,399 complaints and field reports, 7,777 warranty claims, and 4,746 non-warranty claims related to MCU replacements.

Many complaints said Tesla requires owners to pay to replace the unit once warranties expire.

It’s a rather serious problem but the major issue for the NHTSA is that it effectively causes the vehicles to be at odds with the legal vehicle standards that require backup displays on all vehicles. While Tesla’s rearward-facing cameras haven’t gone anywhere, it’s of no use if it cannot be displayed on the center screen. The company has launched numerous over-the-air updates to remedy MCU burnout but it will be up to regulators to see if the changes have done enough to avoid a recall.

[Image: Jag_cz/Shutterstock]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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5 of 13 comments
  • 18726543 18726543 on Nov 17, 2020

    So...if you own a vehicle with a factory rear view camera and it for some reason stops working, will it fail a state safety inspection? It's always been the rule that if an exterior light exists on a vehicle, it must light (assuming it's DOT approved). If a camera exists on a vehicle, must it operate?

  • SCE to AUX SCE to AUX on Nov 18, 2020

    Tesla owners who have paid $$$ for MCU replacements ought to be compensated by Tesla, but it will probably require a class-action lawsuit. This is one reason to avoid a used Tesla - you could be looking at a sudden $500-1500 repair.

    • See 1 previous
    • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Nov 19, 2020

      @sgeffe That's probably part of the reason for the constant contact the cars are in with the mothership. I'm sure they designed it to brick when/if this contact is lost.

  • Ajla There is inventory on the ground but as pointed out it is generally high dollar trims of high-dollar models and at least around here dealers still aren't budging off their mandatory nitrogen tires and Summer weather protection packages.You aren't paying '21-'22 prices anymore but it's still a long way to go.
  • Slavuta Every electric car must come with a film about lithium mining
  • Sobhuza Trooper Drop a good, high-strung German engine in this and you'd have American flair with German repair costs!
  • Kwik_Shift I'll just drive my Frontier into the ground as planned. Possibly find an older "fun" car to collect.
  • Lorenzo The solution is so simple: if the driver shifts into neutral without applying the parking brake, the horn sounds and lights flash until the parking brake is applied. After the third time, the driver should be insulted by a voice saying, "Shouldn't your wife be driving?", or "Where did you get your license - Dollar Store?"