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Tesla owners are complaining about failed infotainment screens in their Model X and Model Y cars. The severe screen problem forced Tesla to recall over 134,000 vehicles through the 2018 model year. It does not appear that Tesla engineered these screens to fail. But the automaker also did not expect them to last as long as the rest of the car.

NHTSA forced Tesla to do a recall for infotainment screens

White interiors of a new Tesla car.
Tesla Model X interior | Tesla

Over the years, more and more Tesla drivers complained of their 17-inch infotainment screens failing. In July 2020, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened an investigation into the problem. By the beginning of 2021, the NHTSA formally requested Tesla recall 158,000 affected Model S and Model X vehicles.

Elon Musk has said he thinks recalls are outdated. In the past, Tesla refused to recall known safety issues. But to the automaker’s credit, it voluntarily recalled the Model S and Model X vehicles with known infotainment screen issues.

In the end, Tesla recalled just 134,951 affected vehicles that had not already received a screen upgrade. This includes 2012-2018 Model S sedans and 2016-2018 Model X crossovers.

Tesla claims the screens were not defective

Promo photo of the interior of a brand new Tesla vehicle.
Tesla Model S interior | Tesla

The NHTSA asked Tesla to recall the vehicles because this screen only lasted for half of a Model S or X’s average lifespan. The Administration also labeled the recalled screens “defective.”

Even though Tesla agreed to the recall, the automaker needed to have the last word. Tesla’s Vice President of Legal, Al Prescott, wrote an open letter to the NHTSA.

In the letter, Prescott revealed that the flash memory device responsible for the screen failure could only last for a certain number of restarts. With average use, it wore out in between five and six years.

Prescott then scolded, “NHTSA has not presented any evidence to suggest that this expected life is outside industry norms.” Tesla requested the NHTSA stop using the word “defective.” It seems Tesla was arguing that because it knew the screens had a 5-6 year lifespan, the NHTSA couldn’t argue they were malfunctioning.

Tesla’s infotainment screens and key safety features

Child playing with a Tesla's 17-inch touchscreen in a dealership.
Tesla Model S interior | Dai Sugano/Staff

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Elon Musk’s engineers are leading the race to replace buttons with screens. The result is a clutter-free interior, preferred by some car owners. But it also puts a lot of demand on the vehicle’s infotainment screen. In the case of Tesla, it even puts legal pressure on the 17-inch screen.

For example, Tesla owners must use the infotainment screen to change the HVAC settings. The NHTSA considers window defrosters to be critical safety equipment. So if a Tesla infotainment screen fails, NHTSA deems the vehicle unsafe to drive.

This is in addition to the NHTSA-mandated backup camera that runs on the same 17-inch screen. So if Elon Musk had built a failproof first-generation car with a smaller, more durable backup screen and hard buttons for critical equipment such as HVAC, Tesla wouldn’t have had to recall any vehicles.

Why would Tesla have done that? Because there was no reliable 17-inch screen available, and the company knew it.

The Drive reported that Musk once bragged about how no automotive electronics supplier would make the 17-inch screen he demanded for his cars, so he went outside the automotive marketplace. But the screen he purchased is too flimsy for the rigorous heat and vibrations typical of duty in a car.

In conclusion, there’s no proof that Tesla engineered its 17-inch infotainment screens to fail. But with Musk’s pursuit of the biggest and the newest, Tesla did not engineer its screens to last.