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Tesla agrees to recall 135,000 vehicles over touch screen failures after sparring with regulators

SAN FRANCISCO — Tesla said it was recalling 135,000 Model S and X vehicles over older touch screen failures, signaling another complication as its first generation of passenger vehicles age.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ordered a recall last month, after finding that the touch screens on those models were going blank and limiting access to numerous features. Tesla did not initially comply and had argued it could limit the problem’s occurrence and restore the features through over-the-air firmware updates and customer repairs.

But late last month, according to a letter on NHTSA’s website Tuesday, Tesla agreed to the recall, saying it wanted to bring “administrative closure to the investigation” and “ensure the best ownership experience for our customers.”

NHTSA said the problem had safety implications, finding customers did not have access to their backup cameras or defog and defrost controls, in addition to certain turn signal functionalities and features in Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system. Climate control settings such as heat and air conditioning are adjusted through the touch screens in Tesla’s cars.

Still, the recall showed the potential pitfalls of having so many of a vehicle’s features controlled through a giant center screen. Automakers had been slowly incorporating this type of technology throughout the past decade, but Tesla was the first major auto manufacturer to essentially eliminate dashboard buttons in favor of a central touchscreen-based system. Its nearly decade-old Model S is now a key indicator for how the vehicles might age and how long its futuristic features might be expected to last, with implications on Tesla vehicles’ resale values and impacts for current and future owners.

And it was also a potential preview of what’s to come as cars become increasingly connected and major automakers attempt to mimic Tesla in a world that is embracing electric vehicles.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Al Prescott, vice president of legal at Tesla, disputed NHTSA conclusions in a letter to the agency, although he repeated Tesla’s intention to comply. He said the touch screen matter demonstrated the problem that “electronic components are becoming increasingly more complex while, at the same time, the expected useful life of vehicles has grown substantially.”

He said Tesla’s screen, given its reasonable average daily use, would be expected to last between five and six years.

“NHTSA has not presented any evidence to suggest that this expected life is outside industry norms or that the … device itself does not comport with that average lifetime estimate,” he said. “Instead, NHTSA has asserted that the component should last at least the useful life of the vehicle, essentially double its expected life span. Tesla has significant concerns with the impact of this tentative conclusion.”

Tesla said the issue involved an 8-gigabyte memory chip in Tesla Model S and X vehicles built between 2012 and 2018, which Tesla said would be upgraded to a new 64 gigabyte chip through the recall. Tesla would notify its stores, service centers and owners of the recall, the company said in its letter, and provide instructions on how to proceed. The recall was expected to begin March 30, according to NHTSA.

NHTSA had initially asked for Tesla to recall 158,000 vehicles, but many of the vehicles have already been repaired with the upgraded memory or a new touch screen.

Tesla maintained that the issue “neither constitutes a defect nor presents an unreasonable risk to safety,” noting owners could still look over their shoulder and check their mirrors, and clear a fogged up windshield by hand.

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