Tech

Tesla to recall more than 130,000 cars following regulators' pressure

Key Points
  • Tesla voluntarily recalled 134,951 Model S and Model X vehicles with media control unit failures that led to the loss of several safety-related features.
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked Tesla on Jan. 13 to recall 158,716 of its electric vehicles due to the safety issues.

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Tesla Model S 75.
Source: Tesla Motors

Following pressure from U.S. regulators, Tesla is recalling 134,951 Model S and Model X vehicles due to common touchscreen failures that can lead to the loss of several safety-related features while driving.

Cars that are part of the voluntary recall were made at Tesla's plant in Fremont, California, and include Model S sedans manufactured between 2012 and 2018 and Model X SUVs in model years 2016 to 2018.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration asked Tesla on Jan. 13 to recall 158,716 of its Model S and X electric vehicles after it concluded that media control unit failures were increasingly common in aging Tesla vehicles, and posed significant safety issues.

"The affected vehicles in the Defect Information Report don't include vehicles that have already been repaired with a) a service part with the 64GB eMMC; or b) an upgraded touchscreen," a NHTSA representative said in an e-mail to CNBC Tuesday when asked about the discrepancy between its recall figure and Tesla's.

"The eMMC controller wear-out condition can cause the loss of the rearview camera display, defrost/defog control settings, and exterior turn signal lighting, reducing visibility and increasing the risk of a crash," NHTSA said.

In a message to owners of the affected vehicles early Tuesday morning, and obtained by CNBC, Tesla wrote:

"Tesla has decided to voluntarily recall certain Model S and Model X vehicles built before March 2018 that are equipped with an 8GB embedded MultiMediaCard (eMMC) in the media control unit because the eMMC may malfunction due to accumulated wear... If a malfunction occurs, you may experience a persistent blank center display that does not recover after restarting the touchscreen, loss of certain functionalities, and/or a vehicle alert to contact Service."

However, in a letter to NHTSA made public Tuesday, Tesla vice president of legal Al Prescott denied the company's vehicles contained any defects.

"Tesla recognizes that even when a component is not designed to last the life of the vehicle, a defect may still be found if it wears prematurely. However, that is not the case here," Prescott said.

"NHTSA's anachronistic regulations are unfit for situations where there is no safety defect, but nevertheless the manufacturer immediately can improve vehicle performance, including safety performance, without the cumbersome need for physical repair."

According to its website, NHTSA has not yet concluded its investigation of Tesla's vehicles, even though Tesla has agreed to a voluntary recall.

Owners of affected cars previously told CNBC the display on their media-control units would sometimes go blank, in part or entirely. The touchscreen issues interfered with drivers' ability to use heat, air conditioning, defrost and defogging systems or to use their rearview cameras and Tesla Autopilot features while parking and driving and left some feeling too frightened to use their vehicles at all.

Many customers previously paid out of pocket to replace their media control units entirely, or paid to replace the eMMC in them. Some of them will be able to get reimbursements, Tesla reiterated on Tuesday.

The company also promised owners more information about recall-related repairs would be sent out by March 30. Meanwhile, Tesla asked customers not to book service for this hardware fix unless they are actively experiencing issues with their touchscreens that cannot be resolved by updating their firmware, or rebooting their systems.

Unlike many updates from Tesla, this hardware fix cannot be done remotely.

Here's the full e-mail sent by Tesla to owners impacted by the recall.

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