2013 Tesla Model S: Looking at the Battery Pack From Below
November 7, 2013
Reports of a third Tesla Model S fire are just filtering in, and the Tesla forums are bogged down with extra traffic, presumably from news media trying to figure out what's going on.
I'm curious, too, so I put our 2013 Model S long-term test car up on our Rotary lift for a look around.
The first fire was reported to be the result of an impact with a "large curved piece of metal" that fell off or was kicked up by a semi. Tesla described a "pole vault effect" that pierced the battery pack from below, creating a three-inch hole. The fire didn't spread throughout the battery pack, and in fact most of what we saw burning in the photos and videos was in front of the battery, involving other components. Still, we understand the initial spark may have come from the battery in that case.
The second fire occurred in Mexico, after the driver ran through a roundabout and struck a tree and pole. So much was going on there it's hard to tell what the cause was, but most certainly the crash came first.
The latest fire is also reported to be a debris strike, but I'm not yet sure if the main traction battery is involved. Photos show a fireman dousing the nose of the car, well ahead of the battery. The main traction battery box begins behind the front axle centerline and extends back under the passenger compartment. It remains to be seen whether or not the battery pack sparked off the blaze.
Here I've pulled off the cover to reveal some of what's up front. I can't ID all of the components without a shop manual in hand, but you can see how the battery pack (that big gray box spanning the underside of the car) starts behind the rear axle centerline. Its unseen vertical front edge is protected by the front subframe, which carries the electronic power steering system and other components. Farther forward, those pipes appear to be part of a refrigeration system, most likely the air conditioning. I can also see electronics (and the compressor, I think) related to the air suspension. The 12-volt "normal" battery is in there somewhere, too. Numerous other systems are nearby, out of sight.
Here are a few observations:
The plastic cover I removed to get this view is quite thin. It's just an aerodynamic cover. This design is similar to other cars, but they don't necessarily have electronic components hanging this low under the nose. Most cars have the oil pan of their engine filling this area. Trucks and SUVs will have a metal skidplate because of possible rock impacts that may occur off-road, but few, if any, sedans have one because they don't venture off road.
That said, the Model S does run quite low to the ground, especially at freeway speeds where the air suspension drops the car even more. Check out the ride height of the next Model S you see. They look slammed, but that's how they come from the factory. It's done in the name of improving aerodynamics to reduce drag and improve efficiency.
Finally, the battery box curves in around the back side of the front tires. It's essentially a part of the inner fender liner in places. Direct debris contact is theoretically possible here if a front tire kicks up something. They say the battery box is one-quarter inch thick. Still, I've hit debris in my own cars plenty of times and have never had anything pierce the thin sheet of plastic that made up their fender liners. But that doesn't mean it couldn't happen.
Is there a problem with the battery pack, the thing everyone is concerned about? We don't have enough information to tell. We're not yet certain if the pack was involved in the ignition of the third fire at all. But the confined nature of each fire is actually heartening. It tells me that the compartmentalization of the battery pack is preventing the spread of flames back under the cockpit, as designed.
The proliferation of flames up front seems to indicate that something else is contributing to the visible flames. It's impossible to know how to think about this until we see and analyze pictures of what the drivers struck and where it impacted the underside of the cars in question.
Whatever the case, it's very likely that the impact zone resides within the area depicted in the above photograph.
Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing @ 11,321 miles