String of Model S Fires Bring Call for Tesla Safety Probe


  • 2013 Tesla Model S Picture

    2013 Tesla Model S Picture

    A recent string of accidents involving the Tesla Model S have resulted in fires, prompting calls for examining the cars' battery protection. | November 08, 2013

Just the Facts:
  • Three Tesla Model S cars have caught fire in the past five weeks.
  • Safety advocates want a federal probe of the electric-car company's battery safety standards.
  • There are more than 500 car fires in the U.S. every day, almost all involving gasoline or diesel vehicles.

SANTA MONICA, California — A trio of Tesla Model S fires in five weeks has some safety advocates calling for a probe of the electric-car maker's safety design and standards.

The most recent incident occurred November 6 after a Tesla struck a tow hitch that was lying on a road in Tennessee. There's no word yet on whether the fire started in the car's high-capacity lithium-ion battery pack, but the pack is situated beneath the passenger cabin, where it is likely to be struck by road debris.

Tesla shields its battery packs with armor plating 6 millimeters (about a quarter of an inch) thick.

Because EVs are a new technology and there is not much data about real-world accidents and battery safety, incidents such as the Tesla fires raise questions that need to be answered, safety specialists say.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration "absolutely" has to look into the Tesla fires, says Clarence Ditlow, head of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Auto Safety. He says the fires raise questions about the adequacy of the Tesla's battery-pack shielding.

NHTSA says it will talk to local authorities to determine if there are safety concerns the agency should investigate.

Meanwhile, Tesla has sent a team of engineers to examine the Tennessee car.

The company also is investigating Model S fires in Mexico and Washington state, both of which occurred immediately after the cars struck other objects. A piece of metal in the road pierced the undercarriage of the Washington car and the car in Mexico caught fire after the driver lost control and hit a tree and a concrete wall.

So far, there have been no incidents reported of the battery pack being the cause of Teslas — or other EVs — catching fire in non-accident situations. Several Fisker Karma plug-in hybrids caught fire last year because of electrical wiring flaws, but those were not traced to problems with battery safety.

In contrast to the relatively few EV fires — Tesla is averaging one for every 6,330 cars delivered to customers — there are an average of 512 fires involving internal-combustion vehicles every day in the U.S. The 187,500 fires logged by the Department of Transportation in 2011 — the latest statistics available — work out to one fire for every 1,350 cars on the road. More than 99 percent of those cars use internal-combustion engines.

The Transportation Department says that 270 people died in car fires in 2011. None of those deaths occurred in an electric vehicle.

"There aren't any dilapidated, 20-year-old Model S cars in operation," wrote David Guilford, news editor for the trade journal Automotive News. But while Teslas are newer and thus should be safer than many of the older conventional vehicles on the road, the numbers, he said, "strongly suggest that — at least at this point — fires in Tesla's electric vehicles are considerably less common than those in vehicles powered by gasoline and diesel."

Still, reports of the latest Tesla fire have made national headlines and apparently have affected the company's stock price. Tesla shares closed at $137.7 last Friday, down 1.4 percent for the day after a 7.5-percent decline the prior day, when news of the Tennessee fire first hit. And Tesla stock endured a 14.5-percent drop last Wednesday in the wake of a third-quarter loss and investor concerns over future battery availability. Despite the slide, Tesla's shares are up 379 percent since the beginning of the year.

Edmunds says: While these fires shouldn't be ignored, it's pretty common, especially in the mass media, to fret about the new and unfamiliar while ignoring the flaws in the things to which we're accustomed.

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