Tesla Remotely Recalls Full Self-Driving Software for 'Phantom Braking' Problem

The software update has already been sent to over 11,000 vehicles

Tesla Model S Photo: Tesla

Tesla has issued a recall after some drivers of Model S, Model X, Model Y, and Model 3 vehicles reported that their cars had suddenly braked while in motion. The problem was faulty software that caused the vehicles’ automatic emergency braking (AEB) to incorrectly activate—an issue known as “phantom braking.” Tesla has already fixed the problem through an over-the-air (OTA) software update sent out last week. 

Today’s announcement comes after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent Tesla a letter criticizing the company for issuing safety-critical software updates to its Autopilot software—which can control some steering, braking, and acceleration functions—without also filing recall notices. In this case, the automaker issued an official recall even though it had already fixed the problem.

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“Based on today’s announcement, it looks like Tesla is following the law, which requires companies to tell NHTSA about and start a recall on any safety defect within five days,” says Erika Eldrenkamp, senior policy analyst at Consumer Reports. “This is a positive step and underlines how Tesla should have handled their recent software update tied to Autopilot and emergency vehicle lights.”

An earlier OTA update caused the phantom braking issue, according to documents Tesla filed with NHTSA. On Oct. 23, Tesla updated its Full Self-Driving (FSD) software. The next morning, the automaker began receiving phantom braking complaints from owners. FSD is an evolving collection of features that can assist the driver with parking, changing lanes on the highway, and coming to a complete halt at traffic lights and stop signs. Despite its name, FSD does not yet make a Tesla vehicle fully self-driving. The software is currently in beta testing, which means it is not a final release.

According to Eldrenkamp, the chronology of events is evidence that the software update should not have been pushed out in the first place. “If this defect was so easy to spot less than one full day after release, it seems like Tesla failed to do enough testing before release,” she says. “This reinforces why cars should not be beta-tested on public roads.”

While faulty OTA updates can present a serious safety concern, today’s recall announcement is also an example of how OTA updates can ensure that important safety issues get fixed, says Jake Fisher, senior director of CR’s auto test center. As of Oct. 29, 2021, Tesla says, all but 17 of the more than 11,000 recalled vehicles have had the faulty software updated and that there have been no crashes or injuries related to the recall. By comparison, 20 percent of newer vehicles have recalls that go unrepaired.

“When they’re done properly, over-the-air updates have the potential to make sure fixes are implemented across every vehicle that needs one as soon as possible without drivers ever having to visit a dealership,” Fisher says.

Although Tesla was one of the pioneers of OTA updates, other automakers have issued similar software updates so that owners could have recall work done remotely. Earlier this year, General Motors and Mercedes-Benz issued recalls that could be completed with an OTA software update.


Head shot photo of CRO Cars CIA editor Keith Barry

Keith Barry

Despite my love for quirky, old European sedans like the Renault Medallion, it's my passion to help others find a safe, reliable car that still puts a smile on their face—even if they're stuck in traffic. When I'm not behind the wheel or the keyboard, you can find me exploring a new city on foot or planning my next trip.