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Tesla agrees to recall cars with failing displays

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Only after a big push from the government’s safety regulator

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Tesla has agreed to recall more than 134,000 Model S sedans and Model X SUVs that will eventually suffer from faulty displays after pressure from the leading US safety regulator, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Tesla announced the recall to customers in an email, according to Electrek, and said a software update could allow them to keep accessing crucial features like the backup camera in the meantime if their displays fail.

The problem that prompted the recall has to do with the 8GB eMMC NAND flash memory device that Tesla used in its massive touchscreen displays on most 2012–2018 Model S sedans and 2016–2018 Model X SUVs. These chips eventually wear out, as Motherboard first reported back in 2019, and when they do, it bricks the entire “media control unit” — cutting off access to not only the backup camera (which is now federally required), but also HVAC controls and everything else that Tesla has routed through the touchscreen. It also affects the turn signal lights, according to the agency. NHTSA says all of this increases the risk of a crash.

NHTSA started an investigation into the failures last year, and during that process, Tesla eventually told the agency that every car with the flash chip “will inevitably fail.” Tesla told NHTSA that it could take as long as eight years to swap all the defective parts if a recall wasn’t issued, with most failures happening around 2022.

Tesla did not appear to want to recall the cars initially, prompting NHTSA to take the unusual step of publishing a public letter “requesting” the recall last month.

Now, Tesla has committed to the recall. On February 1st, NHTSA sent another letter confirming that Tesla will begin a recall on March 30th, covering an estimated 134,591 vehicles. (NHTSA notes in this letter that Tesla still does not believe the bricked displays cause a safety risk.)

Owners can call Tesla customer service at 1-877-798-3752 for more information, and the company’s reference number for the recall is SB-21-21-001. They can also call NHTSA’s “Vehicle Safety Hotline” at 1-888-327-4236 or go to www.safercar.gov for more information.

In the email to owners, Tesla says it will upgrade the eMMC chip free of charge with an “enhanced 64GB eMMC.” The company says it will notify owners when “parts become available” and asks that they not schedule a service appointment unless their vehicle’s display bricks or they get an alert about the memory storage. Owners who already paid Tesla to repair the issue “may be eligible for reimbursement,” which the company says it will share more information about by the end of March. Tesla has been offering to swap the media control unit altogether for $1,500 in exchange for a more powerful version with new features — and which, presumably, won’t fail.

In the meantime, Tesla says owners will not lose access to the backup camera, turn signal, and a base setting for windshield defogging and defrosting if the chip fails as long as owners upgrade their vehicle’s software to version 2020.48.12.