Tesla's Quality Issues Are Normal Compared to Industry Recall Rates

Elon Musk admitted his car company has 'quality issues,' but new models often do.
Brad Bergan

If it weren't for the global pandemic finale, automotive historians would likely remember the twenty-teens as the decade of recalls — a party for which Tesla was one month late.

Tesla recalled nearly 135,000 Model S and X electric vehicles on Tuesday due to a design defect that ruins the all-electric vehicles' infotainment screens after four years of driving, according to a letter Tesla sent to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Much to the surprise of many, Tesla CEO Elon Musk admitted that his company's cars have quality issues, according to a recent interview of the company's CEO broadcast on the podcast and YouTube show "Munro Live." But as one might guess, recalls of new car models are far from rare — with GM and Subaru recalling 3.5 million and 1.3 million cars, respectively, in 2019.

Infotainment touchscreens of older Teslas have a short lifespan

Tesla's recall of nearly 135,000 cars includes Model S sedans built between 2012 and 2018, in addition to Model X SUVs completed between 2016 and 2018. Owners of the defective models will receive notification by the end of March.

The issue is one of which Tesla owners have remained aware for months. An 8GB eMMC NAND flash memory chip connected to the Media Control Unit of the vehicles' Nvidia Tegra 3-powered infotainment systems caused the problem.

When the car is in use, logs are sent to the flash memory, which has a finite lifetime of write cycles; after it reaches the limit of logs, the touchscreen dies — which puts the legally-required backup camera and defrost/defogging controls, and exterior turn signal lighting out of action.

Notably, more recent Model S and X cars built don't have this problem — since they use Intel's Apollo Lake processor, in addition to a 64GB eMMC.

Elon Musk admits Tesla has 'quality problem'

Tesla's Model 3 has become a subject of criticism for years over quality concerns, and earlier on Wednesday Elon Musk admitted to one of the harshest critics that he was correct.

An engineering consultant named Sandy Munro — who breaks down and reverse-engineers cars to evaluate their quality — criticized the Model 3, saying he found "flaws that we would see on a Kia in the 90s."

Munro noticed inconsistencies like uneven gaps between exterior panels and problems in the paint job. "I can't imagine how they released this," he said to Autoline.

In a surprising reply, the CEO billionaire who is renowned for shirking criticism, said: "I thought your criticism was accurate," in the "Munro Live" podcast and YouTube channel. But despite the ostensibly bad optics of a major recall, Tesla isn't in dire straits.

Tesla's recall rate versus production roughly even to automotive leader recalls

From faulty airbag inflators to electronic gearshifts, to ignition switches putting human lives at risk, when recalls are recommended by the NHTSA, they're typically linked to safety issues. After all, if no one gets hurt, then consumers can either stop buying a defective car, or at worst waste some money (which is bad, but not dying bad).

In 2019, a weakening vacuum pump forced GM to recall 3.5 million vehicles, including a five-model-year span of the Cadillac Escalade SUVs, Suburban and Tahoe SUVs, Chevrolet Silverado pickup trucks, and GMC Sierra pickups and Yukon SUVs. This massive recall affected the highest number of cars in 2019 — but luckily, owners could ask their dealers to reprogram the electronic brake control module.

Compared to GM's 2019 recall of 3.5 million vehicles — or even Subaru's 1.3-million vehicle recall of Subaru cars and SUVs in the same year, Tesla's nearly 135,000 vehicle recall looks modest — even lucky — if it weren't for the difference in scale.

Tesla has scored low on job satisfaction

In 2020, it was revealed that Tesla's job rankings on two high-profile job websites had declined, which connotes an increase in job dissatisfaction at the company amid several rounds of layoffs, shifts in strategy, and even executive turnover.

Tesla landed in 16th place on LinkedIn's annual "Top Companies 2019" list, released in April of that year. The company had placed in fifth and sixth ranks in 2018 and 2017, respectively.

Building new vehicle models amid COVID-19 could affect quality

Last April, Tesla furloughed half of its U.S. delivery and sales employees amid the landfall of the COVID-19 crisis in the country. At the time, employees told CNBC that those working in delivery and sales were furloughed according to tenure and rank, instead of performance — leaving those in entry-level roles or with lower sales quotas without work.

With a significant turnover rate and on-site work continuing for employees to amid a global pandemic, one might suspect that this new bout of Tesla recalls won't be the last. However, with several new Giga factories going up in the last few years — and one more potentially coming in Berlin — only time will tell if the all-electric automaker will prove that electric vehicles are less prone to potentially fatal defects, like so many before its time.

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