Tesla says its faulty touchscreens that led to a recall were only built to last 5-6 years

·3 min read
Tesla Model S
Tesla's vice president of legal pushed back at the NHTSA's definition of a "defect." Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images
  • Tesla agreed to recall more than 134,000 of its cars over faulty touchscreens this week.

  • US regulators said the failing displays could affect essential components like the rear-view camera.

  • Tesla agreed to the recall, and said its screens shouldn't be expected to last more than 5-6 years.

  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Tesla agreed this week to recall more than 134,000 vehicles with flash memory units that may wear out unexpectedly, rendering the cars' touchscreens useless in some cases, but it didn't go down without a fight.

In a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration made public on Tuesday, Elon Musk's electric automaker claimed its screens weren't failing prematurely - they were just designed that way.

Tesla's legal chief, Al Prescott, pushed back against the regulator's definition of a "defect," arguing that the eMMC memory devices in question were only built to last five to six years. He said that lifespan is standard for infotainment systems in the industry.

"While the wear rate is heavily influenced by the active use of the center display system, even more so when the vehicle is in drive or charging, given a reasonable average daily use of 1.4 cycles, the expected life would be 5-6 years," Prescott said. "The eMMC flash memory ... is inherently subject to wear, has a finite life (as NHTSA itself acknowledges), and may need replacement during the useful life of the vehicle."

Read more: Elon Musk has talked to Tesla rivals about selling them its controversial Autopilot feature. Experts say these 3 carmakers are the likeliest buyers.

Prescott went on to argue that it would be unreasonable for federal regulators to expect electronic parts to function properly for the entire lifetime of a vehicle, given that "electronic components are becoming increasingly more complex while, at the same time, the expected useful life of vehicles has grown substantially.

"It is economically, if not technologically, infeasible to expect that such components can or should be designed to last the vehicle's entire useful life," Prescott said.

According to Consumer Reports, the average car on the road is at least 11 years old. Tesla itself has sought to extend the useful life of its vehicles by attempting to develop a battery that could last for 1 million miles or more, much more than the typical life expectancy of a gas-powered car.

Teslas are unique in that nearly all of their basic functions - from climate control, to motors, seats, and brakes - are run by a computer system. That's useful for Tesla as it can beam out over-the-air software updates that meaningfully change the car's behaviour, something no other automaker can currently do. It also means, however, that if the computer or display fails, plenty of crucial features can go with it.

The recall affects Model S sedans built between 2012 and 2018, along with Model X crossovers built between 2016 and 2018. According to the NHTSA, failing displays could affect essential safety functions like the backup camera, turn signals, and defogger.

Tesla is recalling 134,951 vehicles in total, fewer than the roughly 158,000 cars the NHTSA initially said were impacted. It has also rolled out firmware updates that it says address the issues and alert customers when their display is near failure.

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