The Model S Fire Was a Good Thing for Tesla

By · October 08, 2013

Tesla Model S crossing bridge

There has been a lot of misinformation and confusion about the safety of electric cars. Let’s quickly run down the history, since the current wave of EVs went on sale in late 2010.

First there was the infamous Chevy Volt fire that happened after the vehicle, in a test environment, was subjected to a side impact crash, rolled over onto its roof, and sat in a parking lot for weeks without properly discharging the battery pack. This caused GM to add additional supports to the center battery tunnel of existing Volts, to similarly modify production of future Volts. It garnered a lot of press at the time, and probably caused a significant loss of potential Volt sales—at a time when the car was just becoming available across the US. The Volt was unfairly criticized. To this day, a lot of people still unfairly think the Volt has a fire problem, when not a single Volt driven by a customer has ever had a fire while being operated.

Then there were the Fisker Karma fires. The first one happened in Fort Bend County, Tex. in May 2012. The official cause was never determined but the car’s high-voltage battery was intact after the fire—leading investigators to believe it was not the source.

Three months later, in Woodside Calif., a second Karma caught on fire. The battery was again shown not to be the culprit, as the fire started in the engine compartment by a cooling fan that malfunctioned. Then, two months later in Port Newark, N.J., 16 Karmas burned after being submerged in about 13 thirteen feet of salt water as a result of Hurricane Sandy. The fires occurred because the vehicle control units were submerged in salt water and short-circuited. Once again, the battery was not to blame. Fisker would have probably failed anyway, but these highly publicized fires helped expedite its demise.

Fire Good?

So how could a video of a burning Model S actually be good for Tesla? Let me explain.

Cars catch on fire all the time. Regardless of the fuel used to propel the vehicle, whether it is gasoline, diesel, natural gas or electricity, cars run the risk of fire. According to the National Fire Protection Association, there are about 17 reported automobile fires per hour in the U.S. They are responsible for an average of four deaths per week. It was just a matter of time before it happened to a Model S, and in this instance, it couldn’t have been any better for Tesla even if they planned the whole thing.

A catastrophic collision with a large curved metal object punctured the battery under the car, which was being driven at highway speeds. The onboard alert system immediately notified the driver there was a problem and to pull over. He was able to safely exit the vehicle before it became engulfed in flames. The fire was contained to the front of the battery pack where it started, without spreading to the entire pack. Only the front of the car was burned and the passenger compartment was never compromised. The car performed exactly as it was designed; the fire was kept from spreading to the entire battery and it did not enter the passenger compartment.

So it finally happened. The first Tesla fire has occurred. Let’s summarize:

  1. Nobody was hurt. The car warned the driver, and advised to pull over.
  2. The fire was caused by a collision and not a defect in the vehicle.
  3. The car did exactly what it was designed to do. The spread of the fire was limited.
  4. We got to watch a video that proves the fire was contained as reported.
  5. Tesla stock price took a slight hit, but has already begun to rebound.
  6. Elon got to respond, boasting about how well the car responded to a severe collision with a large piece of metal road debris.
  7. Tesla gets past the “first one” that we all knew was eventually coming, and emerged relatively unscathed.

Make no mistake about it: There will be more Tesla fires—just as there will be fires in Dodge Chargers, Mercedes S-Class sedans and other vehicles. However, this was about the best possible scenario for Tesla. It happened, it’s over and Tesla got it out of the way.

Any subsequent Tesla fires will get less attention, unless there comes a time when a fire causes serious personal injury. Let’s hope for Tesla’s sake, and the for sake of the entire electric vehicle industry, that if and when that happens, the fact that the car runs on electricity powered by batteries, once again, has nothing to do with it.

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