According to a story first reported by CNBC, Tesla removed an electric steering control unit related to certain Model 3 and Model Y vehicles produced in China. The company reportedly did so to alleviate delivery delays related to the global chip shortage.
The part Tesla removed was one of two different control units used in its steering racks for the Model 3 and Y. The unit Tesla eliminated is unnecessary for the time being, since it's redundant. In addition, there's a chance it may never be necessary, though it could be needed in some vehicles in the future.
Tesla makes an attempt to outfit all of its cars with the ability to be future proof. This means it put hardware and parts in the cars that aren't necessarily being used now, but may be needed later. In addition, the automaker installs hardware that will allow for future updates. For example, all Tesla's vehicles produced after a certain point have the hardware necessary for heated rear seats, though a software update was needed to activate the hardware.
In this case, the Model Y and 3 vehicles in China have one steering unit control that's currently used, since the cars are said to only offer Level 2 advanced driver-assist systems. The second, redundant unit, would be implemented – likely via an over-the-air software update – if the car graduates to Level 3 capability. Perhaps this would be the case if Tesla either upgraded its active safety system's abilities, or an owner opted to add a paid feature down the road, such as the Full Self-Driving package.
While Tesla relies heavily on over-the-air software updates, and touts the fact that owners don't have to visit a service center for updates, this situation could lead to an exception. If owners of these cars were to need to steering control unit at a later date, they'd probably have to visit a Tesla Service Center to have the unit installed.
According to CNBC, HWA Analytics’ Richard Wallace commented about whether or not Tesla's decision to remove the steering component could result in safety concerns. He shared:
“If something like a chip or an ECU is not providing additional functionality, if it is truly redundant, you may be able to turn it off or leave it out. With chips and software, there’s a little bit of wiggle room. I can reassign stuff here and there."
The fact that Tesla removed an unneeded part isn't the issue here, but rather, the fact that the company didn't disclose the information to buyers. Other automakers are also eliminating components due to the chip shortage, though they've made public announcements explaining the changes. Reuters reported:
"Tesla decided against notifying customers as the part is considered a redundant backup and was not needed for the level 2 driver-assistance features, the report said, nor adding it was not clear if Tesla would make similar changes to the cars built in or shipped to the United States. Other automakers such as Ford and GM have left components off their vehicles during the chip shortage, but have done so publicly."
It's important to note that while the impacted cars are made in China, they're being delivered to many other areas across the globe. However, China-made Tesla vehicles don't export to the US.
CNBC says Tesla was able to achieve record sales in Q4 2021 due in part to such changes that helped navigate the chip shortage. Tesla uses different chips than other automakers, which are more readily available, it makes many of its components in-house, and it has the ability to quickly re-write software to accommodate necessary changes.