Tesla Model S Burns After Striking Metal Debris: What We Know So Far

By · October 03, 2013

Model S Fire

Model S on fire following an accident on Tuesday morning. (from video by YouTube user Aj Gill).

There has been no greater fear among supporters of electric vehicles than the prospect of a car fire stopping the momentum of the EV market, now approaching its third anniversary. Fortunately, the minor incidents so far have been relatively quickly dismissed as minor or circumstantial. The specter of burning electric cars is back in the headlines again after a YouTube video posted on Tuesday showed a new electric car on fire. The video's maker can be heard saying, “That's a Tesla, dude. Oh shit.”

The image is a powerful contrast to the Tesla Model S's recent acing of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests. It's considered one of the safest cars on the road. At this early stage, it will be tempting to speculate about the cause of the fire, or its consequences, rather than focusing on the facts as we currently know them, provided by reports from Washington state police.

On Tuesday morning around 8:18 am, a Tesla Model S struck “metal debris” while driving along on State Route 167 in Washington state. Following the collision, the Tesla Model S indicated to the driver that there was a fault with the car and directed him to pull over. “The driver stated that he began to smell something burning and a short time later the vehicle caught on fire,” said Chris Webb, a spokesperson for Washington State Patrol.

The driver was able to safely exit the vehicle without injury, but Webb said the firefighters in attendance were forced to make several attempts to bring the fire under control as the car kept reigniting, posing a challenge for the firefighters.

A report from the local fire department corroborates the basic facts, saying that the firefighters initially pumped water, but then switched to a dry chemical extinguisher after it noticed that "water seemed to intensify the fire activity."

Tesla’s official statement on the incident is succinct.

“Yesterday, a Model S collided with a large metallic object in the middle of the road, causing significant damage to the vehicle. The car’s alert system signaled a problem and instructed the driver to pull over safely, which he did. No one was injured, and the sole occupant had sufficient time to exit the vehicle safely and call the authorities. Subsequently, a fire caused by the substantial damaged sustained during the collision was contained to the front of the vehicle thanks to the design and construction of the vehicle and battery pack. All indications are that the fire never entered the interior cabin of the car. It was extinguished on-site by the fire department.”

The potency of the imagery—combined with the prominence of Tesla Motors and political debates about electric cars as a viable cleaner alternative to petroleum—will likely engender a vocal response to the accident from right-wing media claiming that electric cars are unsafe. This could be a repeat of the response to batteries overheating in the Chevy Volt during lab testing in late 2011. At that time, EVs were used as a political football in debates about public funding of alternative energy companies, such as Solyndra, the failed solar company. Tesla repaid its government loan ahead of schedule, and has a soaring stock price—so perhaps things will be different this time, even though the fire on Tuesday was in the wild, and captured on video.

The cause of the fire, and the possibility of any design flaws in the Tesla Model S battery system, are purely speculation until formal accident investigations have been completed by Washington State Police, the local fire department and Tesla Motors. The importance of the investigations is underscored by the fact that this is the first incident of a blaze involving a Model S sedan after a collision, despite the fact that tens of thousands of Tesla cars are now being safely driven on U.S. roads.

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