When the Tesla Model S first appeared on the car market, it was as if it was out of a sci-fi movie. Surprisingly, it was not because of its electric drivetrain. After taking over Tesla (already from the Roadster model), Elon Musk began to put an enormous emphasis on the “user interface.” It paid off. However, now the NHTSA has discovered a serious problem. Computer components may not be suitable for cars. This may, however, be a great opportunity for car service centers.
A new trend with new risks
Elon Musk came to the automotive industry from the internet world. He therefore knew that the user interface, or more precisely the user experience, plays an absolutely critical role not only for overall user satisfaction, but also in the way that the user talks about the service or product. In other words, word-of-mouth marketing. This is how Tesla built its success. His vision at the time was to make a car that is as user-friendly as the iPhone.
When, in 2012, Elon Musk introduced a passenger car with a gigantic vertical display instead of the usual series of displays, buttons, and controls, it was a shock. The shock paid off and today everyone, including the new generation of the Mercedes S class, are copying this setup. For the first time, Elon Musk decided to use the relatively cheap and readily available components from existing mobile devices, and it panned out. Thus, a de facto new trend began, where formerly purely computer companies such as nVidia suddenly began to enter the automotive industry.
Computer companies took the automotive world by storm
The arrival of computer companies was marked by another key trend in which Tesla was a pioneer – advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) based on artificial intelligence. nVidia joined this trend only recently, at the end of 2018, and was able to gain the best position in just two years, when last year it signed an exclusive agreement with Mercedes-Benz, a company with a history of safety since the fatal accident at LeMans in 1955. The Mercedes S-class was in fact considered the benchmark of new driver safety technologies until the entrance of Tesla.
According to the NHTSA, 158,000 Teslas have a serious problem
While nVidia’s collaboration with Mercedes and other key players is a rather recent phenomenon, with Tesla it was different. Its technology, specifically the nVidia Tegra 3 processor used in mobile phones and tablets, was an integral part of the “tablet” user interface or MCU (Media Control Unit) in the Model S from 2012 to 2018 and in the Model X from 2016 to 2018. From 2018, with the new generation of Autopilot and AI (artificial intelligence) from nVidia, other on-board electronics have also been replaced.
But now NHTSA has come across a Tesla pain-point, that Elon Musk probably didn’t anticipate. The nVidia Tegra 3 tablet and smartphone processor was supplemented with 8 GB of flash memory, which was quite a common thing for Android phones and tablets at the time. However, the lifecycle of a smartphone and a car varies quite significantly. And the flash memory used in conjunction with the processor can “survive” an average of “only” 3,000 read-write cycles, which, according to the NHTSA, is enough for 5 to 6 years of use – plenty for a phone, but not enough for a car.
In the US, the NHTSA has already registered a total of 12,588 incidents involving the MCU, which controls the built-in screen in Tesla vehicles. The agency is therefore considering a full recall, in which Tesla would be required to replace the flash memory in the MCUs. This could mean up to 158,000 cars.
What will this mean for the future of smart cars?
According to the director of nVidia, smart cars will make up 20% of the total passenger car market by 2030. Onboard systems with computer electronics and touchscreens will be far more common. However, manufacturers will have to start paying close attention to the components used. They will clearly have to meet one more criterion in addition to the SAE criteria for automotive electronics – overall lifespan. And with the advent of coronavirus, this lifespan is increasing. There are a number of countries where the average age of registered passenger cars exceeds 10 years, sometimes even 15 years.
And here we come to the great news for automotive service centers and possibly also car dealerships. It is quite probable that the Tesla Model S will not be the first and only car with modern on-board systems, which over time will struggle with lifespan problems, for example with memory, disks, and SSDs. However, unlike with a tablet or laptop, the replacement of these components is not so easy for users to arrange on their own. The time will come for service centers, for which the replacement of on-board electronics will be an interesting growth opportunity. For example, services can record the status of electronic components in their CRM and recommend customers a timely replacement during a standard service interval. At the same time, it is an opportunity for car dealerships to offer their own special options in the form of extended warranties for electronic components in the on-board systems. Are you prepared to replace computer components in your service center?