How The Media Responded to Tesla Model S Fire

By · October 04, 2013

Close-up of Tesla Model S Fire

By this time, you have surely heard that a Tesla Model S luxury electric sedan caught fire in Kent, Wash., after running over a large metallic object. That’s because the story was deemed a big news event by major media, as well as many niche websites and blogs. Google News lists 580 news sources (and counting) about the occurrence. The rush to cover the fire—mostly made known by a viral YouTube video—presented a challenge to reporters: few facts are known about the cause of the blaze.

How each media outlet slices and dices those few facts, and who they interview for analysis, reveals as much about the news organization doing the reporting as it does about the news event itself. Think of it as a Rorschach test regarding attitudes about electric cars in general, and Tesla Motors in particular. The stories can also measured on a fear-meter, from The New York Times suggesting that the fire could be “a stake in the heart of electric vehicles,” to Forbes describing it as a “small bump on the road for Tesla and investors.”

Here’s an unscientific survey of the most telling coverage.

The New York Times: “Car Fire a Test for High-Flying Tesla

“This is why you can’t just take cellphone batteries and string them together under the hood,” said Donald R. Sadoway, a professor of materials chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Cars are subject to different uses and abuses.”

“It’s a relatively innocuous occurrence to hit something in the road,” Mr. [Karl] Brauer [of Kelly Blue Book] said. “But in this case there’s a fire, and a fire that’s difficult to put out.”

“You have to respond openly and honestly with the public, and work through this with N.H.T.S.A.,” said Jason Vines, an industry consultant who was head of communications at the Ford Motor Company when its Explorer S.U.V.’s equipped with Firestone tires became prone to disastrous rollovers. “This could be another stake in the heart of electric vehicles,” he said. “It is inevitable that some people are going to say they are just not ready to go on the road.”

ABC News: “How Does The Tesla Model S Ace Safety Tests, But Catch on Fire?

“The Model S's steel plate keeps its battery protected during everyday driving. But it also made the fire department's job trickier, said [Kyle Ohashi, a captain with the Kent Fire Department]. "Typically when you have a car fire, it's relatively easy to access the battery," he said. "This battery was buried deeply in the front portion of the car, so gaining access to the fire was an issue.”

“Tesla's battery differs from other electric and hybrid cars, Jeff Chamberlain [deputy director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Lab in Illinois] noted, and its design actually lowers the risk of fire propagating. "The Chevy Volt has 288 battery cells that are about the size of your hand," he said. "The Model S uses a different set of cells and has between 8,000 to 11,000 of them. When you divide those cells up the way Tesla did, the [risk] of fire spreading goes down."

MIT Technology Review: “What the Tesla Battery Fire Means for Electric Vehicles

“Vehicle fires are very common. One battery researcher, Jeff Dahn of Dalhousie University, pointed out to me this afternoon that there were 187,000 vehicle fires in the United Statesin 2011. That’s one fire for every 1,738 cars on the road. With Tesla this fire makes one out of almost 20,000. “That’s 10X less frequent,” he told me in an email, typing in all caps.”

Daily Finance / The Motley Fool: “Tesla Under Fire: A Broader Look

“To those who could not believe that a start-up automaker could make an electric car, the Model S fire served up a perfect dish of Tesla failure. However, the situation involving the Model S is far from the typical EV fear scenario.”

“Tesla shares are now down around 10% from before the analyst downgrade and fire were reported. But based on the events surrounding this incident and comparisons to other existing vehicles, I view the safety fears involving the Model S to be greatly overblown.”

Wired Magazine: “Please Calm the Hell Down About the Tesla Model S Fire

“The fact is that on-board energy storage is dangerous. The same fire could have happened to another EV, a traditional internal combustion engine, a hydrogen fuel cell, a compressed air-powered vehicle, or any other fuel that can propel a two-ton hunk of metal, plastic, and rubber down the road at freeway speeds.”

“The bottom line is simple: energy storage—in all its forms—is problematic. And this is just the latest incident that proves it.”

Forbes: “Yes, Teslas Can Catch Fire But Keeping Cool Is In Order

“From what’s known so far, this appears to be a case of a spectacular incident being used as an excuse to sell off a stock that has had a spectacular run. EV detractors might attempt to make it an excuse for bashing the underlying technology, but there are tens of thousands of Volts and Nissan Leafs also on the road. So far those, too, have proved to safe in their fair share of collisions. Unless there is some revelation about a thus-far unseen defect in the Model S, this will likely be a small bump on the road for Tesla and investors. One would hope owners of the cars encounter similarly smooth roads ahead to avoid incidents like the one in Kent.”

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