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USB Flash Drives for Tesla Dashcam

 

Summary

Tesla has two cool features – a Dashcam that records video while driving, and Sentry mode that can record a 10-minute clip from 3 cameras (front, and both side pillars) when it detects a person moving nearby. These video recording features are currently limited to the Model S/X with HW2.5 (vehicles made after July 31, 2017) and all Model 3/Y vehicles.

There are a wide range of USB flash drives, but selecting the wrong drive creates problems, such as failed drives, incomplete images, or other strange problems. Most problems can be eliminated by using a quality USB flash drive.  (June-2019 update)

 

Key Requirements

Capacity: Larger is better, and 32 GB should be the lower limit. 128 or 256 GB is ideal. Generally, the larger the drive the longer it lasts. There is a bug that when the drive becomes full (using Sentry mode) all video stops being recording. A larger drive allows more storage before this problem occurs.

Write Speed: 40 MB/s or better – as you get slower, the drive cannot keep up with the images being written and the drive may crash, hang or distort the images.

Type: While USB 2.0 works fine, we recommend 3.0 or 3.1, which cost no more than old 2.0 drives. The USB version does not matter in the Tesla, but speeds operation on your PC, such as viewing and formatting.

Format: FAT32 (see below, as exFAT will NOT work). Tesla also accepts Linux ext4 format, but few use this.

Brand: A well know brand such as Patriot, Kingston, PNY, Samsung, SanDisk, Transend. There are many mystery names that change every year. These are usually garbage drives and should be avoided.

 

Drive Longevity

Unlike most electronics, flash drives have a limited lifetime. After many repetitive writes to a single location, the data fails to record properly. PC SSD drives have built in validation to detect failures and use alternate areas instead. Most PC SSD drives also have a feature call wear leveling, where repetitive data to a single location is internally moved to alternate location to increase the drive’s life. We’re not aware if any USB flash drives use this technology. Generally good consumer flash drives using MLC memory are rated from 1,000 to 10,000 maximum program/erase cycles. Cheaper drives use TLC or QLC memory, are rated far less. Counterfeit and fake drives may fail as little as 200 writes.

The Tesla dashcam stores about 2 GB of data in an hour in one-minute segments. After an hour’s video is stored it overwrites the oldest segment with new data. Driving at 60 MPH, means your Tesla dashcam has the last 60 miles of video recorded. The chart below shows how many miles before drive failure in the best case.  Most drives last less than this but helps put drive life in perspective.

Write Cycle Life Miles before failure, 60 mph Miles before failure, 30 mph
10,000 600,000 300,000
5,000 300,00 150,000
1,000 60,000 30,000
200 12,000 6,000

 

Fake and Counterfeit USB Drives – Don’t get Taken!

The majority of USB and SD card type flash drives that are unknown brands, no-names and most drives appearing on auction sites are fakes. Price is no indicator, although those too-good to be true are always fakes. Scammers have taken rejected drives and/or low capacity drives and modified the drive to look like a far larger capacity drive. In reality, only a small part of the drive is useable. Sticking the drive in Windows or a MAC shows the purchased capacity, and you can even write a huge amount of data to the drive without any apparent errors. When you go to read the data from the fake drive, much of the data is missing or corrupted.

The second common trick we’ve seen is labeling a slow USB 2.0 drive as a USB 3.0 or 3.1 drive. They may even use the newer ‘blue’ 3.0 style connector, but inside it’s a crappy slow 2.0 drive. White or black connectors are normally associated with USB 2.0. Even if they use the right hardware, the fake drive could be a fraction of the stated speed.

USB 3.0 Connector

Blue USB 3.0 Connector

Blue normally indicates USB 3.0/3.1, and some USB 3.1 connectors also use a teal color.

The last aspect of fake drives is the lifetime of writes may be dramatically lower than those from reputable manufacturers. This is not much of an issue for storing music that is updated infrequently but can be critical for storing dashcam video.

Scammers are hoping you do not discover the drive is far smaller or slower than you thought until long after they are gone, and you can’t get a refund. This is a rampant problem and it’s so bad that you should only buy a drive from a reputable company like Amazon (direct from Amazon, not through resellers), BestBuy, Costco, Newegg, etc. and stay away from a brand you never heard of before.  Even well-known drive companies have seen many counterfeit drives flooding the market through auction sites.

There are a few free tools to detect the true working size of a drive, but they require the drive to be empty, as they need to write data to confirm the true capacity.  I like RMPrepUSB as it’s a bit quicker than others I’ve tried. When installing be sure to select English. To use it, if the drive is greater than 128 GB, go to Settings and click on List Large Drives > 128 GiB. Next select the USB drive in the window (usually only the one drive), and then select the Quick Size Test button. The test overwrites data, so be sure there is nothing you need to keep on the USB drive.

Opening Screen of RMPrep in Windows

Opening Screen of RMPrep in Windows

After several prompts, a command box opens where the test runs. There are long periods with no visible activity. This is normal. After every 5% of the test completes, an estimate of the time remaining appears.

size test

RMPrep size test 5 % complete

 

It may take an hour or more to test a large drive, but when complete, it confirms if the USB drive size is real.

drive size confirmed

Drive Size Confirmed OK

Drive Recommendations

We recommend the following drives that are available on Amazon and other retail stores. Any of these should work great to record Tesla’s dashcam video. Speeds are from the manufacturer for the drive sizes listed. Smaller drives (not shown below) are often slower than larger ones. Prices are street price of 128 GB version drive as of July 2019.

USB flash drive

Sizes Vendor Price USB Read Speed Write Speed
32-128 GB Kingston DataTraveler Elite G2 $60 3.1 180 MB/s 70 MB/s
128-256 GB Samsung Bar Plus $26 3.1 300 MB/s 50 MB/s
128 GB SanDisk Extreme Go, 3.1 $33 3.1 200 MB/s 150 MB/s
128-256 GB SanDisk Extreme Pro, 3.1 $46 3.1 420 MB/s 380 MB/s
64-256 GB Transcend JetFlash $70 3.0 MLC 210 MB/s 140 MB/s

The large price differences are likely due to the type of memory used. We could only confirm the Transcend drive uses MLC memory, which has the best lifetime (and highest price).

SSD Drives

Some owners have also used a SSD drive with a SATA to USB converter. This should work fine, so long as the SSD drive peak power consumption is under 2W for S/X or 6.2W on the Model 3/Y.  Many larger SSDs 256 GB or larger consume more than 2W while writing, and peak consumption may be even higher. Even some smaller drives exceed Tesla’s USB power budget. If you exceed the power needed, writes become intermittent and it’s even possible to damage the SSD drive. Here’s one SSD power consumption guide we found, but it does not rate peak power.

SSD drives often have great wear leveling technology that extends the life of the drive. This technology is not in USB stick type flash drives or SD cards.

ssds for tesla

Here are some USB based small packaged SSD drives that are below 6W, and will work fine in the Model 3.  During writing, the peak power may exceed the power available on the Model S/X USB 2.0 ports, so it may not work reliably on the S/X. Prices are for the 500 MB version as of Jul-2019.

Sizes Vendor Price USB Read Speed Write Speed
500-2000 GB Samsung T5 Portable SSD $80 3.1 540 MB/s 540 MB/s
250-2000 GB SanDisk Extreme Portable $90 3.1 550 MB/s 500 MB/s
256-2000 GB WD My Passport SSD Portable Storage $90 3.1 540 MB/s 300 MB/s

Wireless Connection USB Drive

A few users have purchased the SanDisk Connect Wireless Stick which acts as a normal flash drive for recording, but when removed and separately powered, can connect via WiFi to your phone or tablet.

sandisk connect drive

The cost for the 200 GB version is $210 on Amazon, and oddly, the 128 GB version is more expensive at $224 (Prices as of June-2019).

TeslaUSB with Raspberry Pi

For the power DIYer, there is the Raspberry Pi in combination with the TeslaUSB software, where you have a small computer that makes the file system available to a USB port.

Raspberry Pi BoardYou can have video files saved for later, getting around the Tesla one-hour limit, or even having the Pi computer auto-upload via WiFi to a home network when you arrive home. The Raspberry Pi uses a micro SD card, which allows for a dashcam grade memory. We have an entire section for micro SD cards in our Dashcam guide that you may find helpful if you go this route.

 

Formatting your Drive

Most drives 32 GB and under are pre-formatted for FAT32. Larger drives may be FAT32, exFAT or NTFS. Only drives that are formatted for FAT32 (or Linux ext4) can be seen by our cars, so if it is in exFAT or NTFS, you’ll need to reformat it (which erases all the data on the drive).

Formatting with Windows

With Windows on drives at or under 32 GB, open Explorer. In the left pane, right-click on the USB drive and select Format. BE ABSOLUTELY SURE you selected the USB flash drive and not another hard disk. Set the File system to FAT32 and click Start.

Windows Format

Windows Format

Formatting with GUIformat

For drives larger than 32 GB, to use FAT32 (not exFAT) you’ll need a third-party utility, since Windows doesn’t allow formatting FAT32.  One free product we like is GUIformat, which is really simple. Click on the image on the web page to download the program. Run guiformat.exe (there is no installation).

select

Select the USB drive, and optionally set the volume label

confirm

Confirm Format

complete

Format Complete

Formatting with RMPrep

You can also use the free RMPrep program listed in the fake drive test above to reformat the drive. Using RMPrep, with the flash drive selected, check the box “Set partition as non-bootable” and in section 4, select FAT32.  Then click on the teal button “6 Prepare Drive“.

formatting

Formatting with RMPrep

Formatting with OS X

Open Finder, search for Disk Utility and select.  On the left pane, select your flash drive. Be absolutely sure you’ve selected your flash drive and not the hard disk!  Click Partition to identify the current format. If not “MS-DOS (FAT)”, click Erase. Select MS-DOS (FAT) as the format. Note that Apple makes it a bit confusing as “MS-DOS (FAT)” is really Windows FAT32. Click on the lower “Erase…” button, and a confirmation dialog appears. Click the Erase button and the format should begin.

 

Create the TeslaCam Folder

After formatting the drive, create a folder with this exact name “TeslaCam”. For example, in Windows, open Explorer on the folder and click on New Folder and set the name.

folder name

Set Folder Name

 

Partitioning – Music and Dashcam Video on One Drive

While Tesla does not officially support music and recording dashcam video on the same drive, it can be done by creating two partitions on the drive. The process is not simple, and I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble, but if you need to use one USB port for your phone, that only leaves one port for USB music and dashcam video. SomeJoe7777 has made a good partitioning tutorial on TMC.

One downside of this approach is drive failure at some point due to dashcam longevity issues. Depending on how the drive fails, it may take your music collection along with it.

 

Limitations of the Tesla Dashcam

When compared with third party dashcams, the Tesla dashcam is a bit limited, but the price (free) is right, and doesn’t require any special installation. It doesn’t perform nearly as well as the best dashcams, such as the BlackVue DR900S-2CH.

Feature Tesla Dashcam BlackVue DR900S-2CH
Front camera 1280 x 960
narrow angle (~40°)
3840 x 2160 (2160p)
162°
Side cameras 1280 x 960
75°, rear biased
1920 x 1080 (1080p)
139° *  (optional)
Rear camera not used 1920 x 1080 (1080p)
139°
Frame rate 36 fps 30 fps (optional 60 fps at 1080p)
Color yes, muted yes, normal
Image stabilization No Yes
Memory Use 3 GB/hour, 3 cameras 17.5 GB/hour front & back
Maximum Recording 60 minutes max Up to limit of memory
Video Stamps none Timestamp and GPS location
Power 250W 5.6W
Audio recording No Yes
WiFi auto upload to Cloud No Yes

* Side cameras can be installed with a second DR900S. With a four-camera setup, usually the 2160p cameras are mounted front and rear, and the 1080p cameras are mounted on each side of the car.

For more about alternative dashcams, see our extensive Dashcam guide.

 

Tesla Cam Footage Beyond an Hour

Currently the Tesla dashcam records for an hour and then, overwrites the oldest one minute segment with new video.  This means only one hour is normally accessible. Turns out, you may be able to recover hours of video if you are using a larger drive.

There are a number of data recovery tools. I’ve used CnW Recovery on Windows 10, but there are plenty of others. SteveWin1, who discovered this trick, uses PhotoRec on Linux which is also available on Windows. These tools are not fast, as they need to scan the entire drive, but are mostly automatic. Faster drive read speeds also speeds the recovery process – another reason to buy a fast USB drive.

If you are more of a DIYer/programmer, checkout the TeslaUSB solution, summarized above that can automatically copy video while others are being recorded, to provide much more than a hour of recording time.

 

Troubleshooting

The dashcam should work fine in every Model 3, and any S/X made in October 2016 or later that has HW2.5.  Assuming you’ve selected a suitable USB drive, the following may help solve additional problems.

No Dashcam Icon appears (while driving)

Most common issue is not placing a folder named “TeslaCam” in the root directory of the flash drive.  Also confirm the drive is formatted for FAT32, and not NTFS or exFAT.

If you are using anything between the USB drive and the Tesla USB connection, try without it. Many cables are power only and do not pass data.

Note that starting around 2019.16.2, when parked, the dashcam icon changes to a new Sentry on/off icon.

Video is distorted or only part of each video frame recorded

This is due to the USB drive having a slow write speed. The drive cannot keep up with the amount of data that is being sent by Tesla.  We recommend drives with 40 MB/s or higher write speeds. Some drives have fast writes for small amounts of data, but slow dramatically for larger amounts of data.

No longer recording video

If the drive has slow write speeds, all sort of oddities can occur, including total drive failure.

If you’re using the Sentry Mode, each motion outside the car saves 10 minutes of recording. This video is not overwritten, and for a small USB drive, it can quickly fill up the drive. Once the drive is full, it stops recording all video. This is a bug, and Tesla is likely to fix it in the future. For now, you need to remove the drive every so often and erase the video (or just format the drive and add back the TeslaCam folder). The larger the drive, the less frequent this is needed. A 128 GB drive should give a month’s storage capacity or so.

Tesla smartly recommends pausing the dashcam (long press on the dashcam icon so it turns grey).  If you forget to do this and remove the USB drive while recording, the file table, or in rare instances, the drive, may be corrupted. Attempting to reuse the drive fails, and usually all the video is lost. Often a format brings back the drive, but not always.

Drive no longer works

You have to stop video recording before pulling the drive by pressing the icon for several seconds until it is off (gray). Consider that Tesla is writing a massive amount of data to the drive in multiple areas of the drive (three video streams). When you pull the dive without stopping the recording, as power drops some writes will occur anywhere on the drive – including critical areas. Very easy to trash a drive this way, even on a PC or MAC. The difference is, most owners are not writing to the drive when they pull it from a PC or MAC – so no apparent problem. There is nothing Tesla can do in software to fix this user error.

In some cases, the drive can be formatted and will work fine, but often the drive can’t even be formatted. Advanced recovery tools are unlikely to fix these kinds of problems either, but might be worth a try.

If you’ve been using the drive for 6 months or more, and always stop recording before removal and the drive no longer works, it may also be the number of writes have doomed the drive. Flash drives have a limited number of writes, and cheaper drives will usually die sooner than better ones. In addition a larger drive will usually last longer as it doesn’t have to rewrite the same area as often. I’d expect a 128 GB drive should last at least a year with the amount of data Tesla is saving.

Stops Recording when getting into car

If you’re using a USB hub – don’t. It seems to cause problems. Use the hub for other devices on one USB port, but leave the dashcam connected directly to a USB port.