Tesla Ordered to Recall 150K+ Vehicles to Repair Memory Failures

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Tesla has been ordered to recall roughly 159,000 vehicles to fix a problem in the Media Control Unit. News broke several months ago that over 12,000 Tesla vehicles had suffered a significant NAND flash failure that killed the vehicle’s touch screen. Many vehicle controls in a Tesla are accessed via touch screen, and the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) began an investigation after over 500 complaints were filed about the issue.

There are several interlocking reasons for the problem. Tesla’s onboard MCU initially contained just 8GB of NAND Flash. Tesla writes extensively to the NAND flash for data logging (problem #1), which winds up depleting the 3,000 program/erase cycles the onboard NAND flash is capable of. Once its onboard NAND fails, the touch screen stops working, freezing the end-user out of climate controls and from using the rear backup camera. It also is said to impact “audible chimes related to ADAS, Autopilot, and turn signals.”

Image by InsideEVs. The affected eMMC chip is indicated by the red arrow.

Tesla shipped this iteration of its MCU in ~159,000 vehicles, including 2012-2018 versions of the Model S and 2016-2018 versions of the Model X. The current failure rate at the time of the initial investigation was as high as 30 percent in certain build months, and failure rates accelerate after 3-4 years in service. In the summer of 2020, Tesla introduced an MCU with a 64GB eMMC chip instead of 8GB, which should alleviate the problem. The issue with older vehicles, however, remains unresolved. Typically, the NHTSA doesn’t formally demand a recall, because a manufacturer voluntarily provides one. Tesla has already acknowledged that 100 percent of vehicles with this issue will eventually fail and the NHTSA report, discussed by Reuters, indicates that nine other automakers have previously performed voluntary recalls to resolve issues like this.

The NHTSA report states: “Tesla has implemented several over-the-air updates in an attempt to mitigate some of the issues … but tentatively believes these updates are procedurally and substantively insufficient.” It noted that under the law, “vehicle manufacturers are required to conduct recalls to remedy safety-related defects.”

One of the major complaints about how Tesla is handling this situation is that the company is forcing end-users to pay for a problem it should have resolved years ago. Tesla fired its entire PR office last year, so there’s no one we can contact to get an opinion on the topic. As of this writing, no comments have been made via Twitter on how the company plans to respond to the recall “request,” but if Tesla wants to fight it, it’ll have to provide its full reasoning and justification for why the failure doesn’t constitute a safety risk to the vehicle or driver.

Tesla appears to be the only company currently suffering from this exact logging problem, which probably speaks to the wisdom of logging such exhaustive amounts of information to consumer eMMC in the first place with no long-term plan for what to do when the NAND flash failed. There’s no excuse for selling a vehicle knowing its NAND flash will begin to fail in 3-4 years with no plan for how to deal with that beyond, “Charge the customer for a replacement if it happens out of warranty.”

This issue only affects earlier Tesla models. If you bought one in the last year or two, you may not be affected. Vehicles equipped with Intel hardware don’t seem to have the same problem as earlier Tegra 3-based designs, though again — the issue here is the small amount of NAND, not the fact that the entertainment system was made by Intel or Nvidia.

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