Tesla Car Fires: Feds Launch Investigation After Two Model S Batteries Burst Into Flames

By Josh Lieberman on November 19, 2013 4:58 PM EST

tesla model s
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is investigating two incidents in which Tesla Model S batteries burst into flames. (Photo: Flick: alabut)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched an investigation into why two Tesla Model S vehicles burst into flames recently. In both incidents, the fire originated in the battery pack, after the driver went over road debris. Both drivers were able to safely pull over and exit the car before the fire began.   

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"The agency has opened a formal investigation to determine if a safety defect exists in certain Tesla Model S vehicles," the NHTSA said in a statement to CNBC. "The agency's investigation was prompted by recent incidents in Washington State and Tennessee that resulted in battery fires due to undercarriage strikes with roadway debris."

In the first incident, which took place in October near Seattle, Wash., a piece of metal struck the undercarriage of a Model S, damaging the car's battery and causing a fire. On November 6, a Tesla in Smyrna, Tenn., burst into flames after its driver went over a tow hitch lying in the road. (A third Tesla fire occurred in Mexico, but is outside the NHTSA's reach.) 

Tesla CEO Elon Musk--the man behind Hyperloop and SpaceX--said that the Model S, which received the highest-ever safety rating by the NHTSA, is no more likely to burst into flames than any other vehicle. The numbers don't support that idea at all, says Musk.

"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," Musk wrote in a blog post on Tesla's site.  "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. The media coverage of Model S fires vs. gasoline car fires is disproportionate by several orders of magnitude, despite the latter actually being far more deadly."

Dave Guilford, news editor for Automatic News, agrees that the likelihood of Teslas bursting into flames may be overblown. Guilford cites statistics from the National Fire Protection Association, which estimates that there were 187,500 car fires in 2011. That works out to one fire for every 1,350 cars, compared to one fire per every 6,333 Teslas.   

Musk says that he not only welcomes the NHTSA investigation, but that Tesla requested it. The veracity of that claim, however, appears to be questionable: the NHTSA says that they "notified the automaker of its plans to open a formal investigation and requested their cooperation, which is standard agency practice for all investigations."

According to Musk's blog post, Tesla will implement measures to create more ground clearance on the Model S. Tesla will also extend warranties to cover fire damage, even in cases where the owner is at fault.

If the NHTSA investigation finds a defect with the Model S, the government could assess fines and even recall the vehicle. Musk said last week that Tesla will not voluntarily recall the Model S. "If there was something we thought would affect the safety, we would immediately do a recall," Musk said.

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