Tesla insists software update to fix fire risk was not a recall

Tesla Model S on display at the Detroit Auto Show.
(Jerry Hirsch / Los Angeles Times)

Tesla Motors executives criticized the National Highway Traffic Agency’s use of the word “recall” even as they had to recall their expensive Model S electric sports sedan because of a part of the electric car company’s charging system that can start a fire.

Speaking at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Jerome Guillen, Tesla’s vice president of sales, said calling Tesla’s fix a “recall” was outdated because it did represent a physical repair but rather a software update conducted wirelessly while the owners’ cars were parked in their garages.

“We are going to be having some discussions about the appropriateness of using a word that has no physical sense,” Guillen said.

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He said nearly all of the cars have had their software updated.

The update allows the Model S charging system to detect any unexpected fluctuations in the input power or higher resistance connections to the vehicle. If detected, the onboard charging system will automatically reduce the charging current by 25%, enough to prevent the type of overheating in the connector that can cause a fire.

Additionally, Tesla will mail owners a replacement adapter that is equipped with an internal thermal fuse.

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Tesla said about 3% of its customers have returned damaged charger connection units because internal damage prevented them from charging the electric car.

The recall affects more than 29,000 Model S sports sedans.

NHTSA declined to engage Tesla in a public debate of what constituted a recall. Instead, the agency issued a statement saying it will continue to “monitor all of the available data to determine if there are safety implications that merit additional agency action.”

NHTSA still has an open investigation into two fires caused when the battery packs on the undercarriages of the Model S were punctured by road debris.


Also at the Detroit Auto Show, Tesla announced that it was on track to launch production of its Model X electric sport-utility late this year. Executives said a third-generation, less expensive electric sedan is still up to three years away. That car is expected to sell in much greater numbers than the Model S, which starts at about $71,000 and easily crosses $100,000 depending on its range and options.

The electric car company said it sold close to 6,900 Model S sedans in the final three months of 2013, beating its expectations. Tesla, which makes the car at a factory in Fremont, Calif., sold 5,500 vehicles in the third quarter.

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