Tesla Motors co-founder and CEO Elon Musk, responding to increasing criticism of the Model S electric car due to a series of battery related fires that have been making headlines, took to the automaker’s website yesterday to defend his company. He also spoke to actions being taken to investigate exactly what is going on.
Musk, in a lengthy post, spoke directly to what he feels is overhyped attention being given to a few battery fire incidents, especially when compared in context to fires in regular gas-powered cars. He noted passionately that
since the Model S went into production last year, there have been more than a quarter million gasoline car fires in the United States alone, resulting in over 400 deaths and approximately 1,200 serious injuries (extrapolating 2012 NFPA data). However, the three Model S fires, which only occurred after very high-speed collisions and caused no serious injuries or deaths, received more national headlines than all 250,000+ gasoline fires combined.
He further pointed out that there are “now substantially more than the 19,000 Model S vehicles on the road that were reported in our Q3 shareholder letter for an average of one fire per at least 6,333 cars, compared to the rate for gasoline vehicles of one fire per 1,350 cars.”
With all of this being said, and even given the fact the Model S earlier this year nabbed a a new record for the lowest likelihood of injury to occupants as rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Musk reportedly decided to take the proactive step of asking the government agency to “conduct a full investigation as soon as possible into the fire incidents,” though officials from there are saying otherwise. He wants this to happen in part because “if a false perception about the safety of electric cars is allowed to linger, it will delay the advent of sustainable transport and increase the risk of global climate change, with potentially disastrous consequences worldwide. That cannot be allowed to happen.”
And, indeed, in a NHTSA document [PDF], such a case was in fact opened on November 15. In a problem description labeled “deformation/intrusion into the propulsion battery by roadway debris may result in a thermal reaction and fire,” a preliminary evaluation will look at “the potential risks associated with undercarriage strikes on model year 2013 Tesla Model S vehicles.”
The Office of Defects Investigation division of the NHTSA, in an early summary of this issue, said that it
is aware of two incidents occurring on US public highways in which the subject vehicles caught fire after an undercarriage strike with metallic roadway debris. The resulting impact damage to the propulsion battery tray (baseplate) initiated thermal runaway. In each incident, the vehicle’s battery monitoring system provided escalating visible and audible warnings, allowing the driver to execute a controlled stop and exit the vehicle before the battery emitted smoke and fire.
Besides the requested for NHTSA inquiry, Musk said Tesla is further addressing any possible safety concerns via software updates focused upon air suspension/ground clearance and amending the Model S warranty policy “to cover damage due to a fire, even if due to driver error.”