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Electric Vehicles

The Cybertruck Recall Is Different

Tesla has dealt with quality control issues before — but never with a robotaxi on the horizon.

The Tesla logo.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

You have to give TikTok user el.chapito1985 credit for not panicking. In a video posted a few days ago, he explained how the cover on his Tesla Cybertruck accelerator pedal came loose and then wedged itself in just the right spot to leave the pedal stuck in floor-it position.

The poster said he managed to stop the truck by slamming the brake, which overrode the accelerator, and putting the vehicle in park. But his experience certainly explains Tesla’s newest predicament: It will recall all the Cybertrucks currently on the road to fix the sticky accelerator issue.

Today’s mess feels like it’s adding insult to self-injury for Tesla. The company seems to be adrift after spending so much energy on the roundly mocked Cybertruck and canceling its planned $25,000 electric vehicle; now, its long-standing problems with build quality are coming back to bite it in the bumper.

During Tesla’s rise to EV dominance, some of the loudest objectors to its cars have been reviewers (and then owners) griping about manufacturing defects. YouTube abounds with videos pointing out uneven panel gaps and thin paint jobs and decrying the use of cheap plastics in such an expensive vehicle.

The thing is, none of this prevented the company from becoming the world’s most valuable automaker. Tesla may have developed a reputation among automotive insiders for shoddy or rushed workmanship, but millions of people who wanted a Tesla bought one nonetheless.

Tesla is the most-recalled vehicle brand, according to Autoweek, but many of those issues could be solved via over-the-air software updates. For instance: Earlier this year, the automaker had to recall millions of cars because fonts on the braking system software were too small. It solved this with a software patch, so owners did not have to deal with the hassle of bringing in their car and driving a rental in the interim. Because of this dynamic, the company downplayed a lot of technical issues, suggesting it’s not really a “recall” if you can fix it with a little bit of code.

A stuck pedal is a different story. There are few things scarier to a driver than “sudden unintended acceleration,” the stoic name for that feeling when your car seems to have developed a death wish.

If you’re old enough to remember the first decade of this century, you probably recall alarmed TV news segments about this problem in Toyota and Lexus vehicles, which killed a reported 89 people during from 2000 to 2010. The giant carmaker initially denied any manufacturing problem, attributing the issues instead to “pedal misapplication” — a polite euphemism for times when the driver hits the gas thinking it’s the brake. In the end, Toyota had to recall millions of cars when it determined that floor mats could have caused the pedal stuckness. That still didn’t cover all the stuck pedal issues, though, according to news reports, and the federal government ultimately issued more than a billion dollars in fines.

Tesla's problem with the Cybertruck pedal is nowhere near that scale, simply because, well, they’ve sold so few of them — just 3,878, according to the recall documentation. Tesla had already slowed the vehicle’s production, perhaps because it knew from early reports that this manufacturing problem was on the horizon, which gives the company a chance to correct things before the Cybertruck starts selling in bigger numbers (presuming it ever does).

Still, the news bodes ill for the future Elon Musk envisions for the company. Thousands of Tesla employees lost their jobs earlier this week, just as Musk appears to be going all-in on the “robotaxi” that would entirely drive itself.

It’s an appealing vision, sure. I would much rather put my feet up, read a book, play with my phone, do anything other than pilot a car through another frustrating, traffic-clogged trip down the highway. But turning over control to the robotaxi would mean trusting Tesla’s hardware and software not to fail mid-journey. A driver in the driver’s seat can do what el.chapito1985 did: slam on the brakes if the accelerator pedal gets stuck and pray that frantic stomping stops the car. A robotaxi owner would be just a passenger, with little recourse if a part suddenly got stuck or the AI suddenly misunderstood its environment. The robotaxi won’t even have a steering wheel — or, at least, that’s the plan.

There may come a day when autonomous vehicles are safer than those piloted by distracted, tired, angry, or indifferent humans, and car accident deaths drop because we turned over the chore of daily transportation to the machines. But with every software bug that calls for an over-the-air fix, and every defect that requires a recall, Tesla gets further from the consumer confidence it would need for a robotaxi to steer the company back on track.

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Andrew Moseman profile image

Andrew Moseman

Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles.

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