Tesla Model S fire sparks safety concern

One incident should not put owners in panic mode

Last updated: October 04, 2013 09:00 AM
The Tesla Model S during a NHTSA crash test.

The company that has become synonymous with the electric car revolution hit a speed bump on Tuesday when video of a fiery accident went viral. The incident occurred early in the morning, outside Seattle, when a Model S struck a piece of metal debris on the highway.

Apparently, the metal punctured a hole in the large battery pack. The car issued a warning to the driver, recommending he pull over, before the fire began, according to Tesla Motors. The driver was able to park safely and call for help before anything dramatic occurred. No one was injured.

Tesla explains that the car performed as designed by isolating the fire exposure to just a portion of the battery pack, which is divided into 16 isolated sections. Each section essentially acts as a fire break, prohibiting fire from spreading. The fire remained to the front of the car, and Tesla explains that there is no indication that flames entered the cabin. The fire department extinguished the fire. Based on media reports, water was initially used before the response team realized it was a chemical fire.

This incident has spawned hundreds of news reports and even affected stock value. But how rare is it? Pretty darn uncommon.

So far, Tesla Motors has sold more than 13,000 Model S electric cars, which have logged 83 million miles in consumer hands. That’s more than 6,000 miles per car on average. This is the only such fire that has been reported.

The Highway Loss Data Institute tracks myriad vehicle woes, but not accident-related fires. Its latest data show the average for the 2010 to 2012 model years for noncrash related fires is 0.1 per 1,000 insured vehicle years, or 5,600 total claims. (An insured vehicle year is one vehicle insured for one year.) A rough extrapolation puts Tesla’s rate at below that average, assuming on average its 13,000 cars have been around for one year. (Predictably, due to the government shutdown, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did not answer queries for fire-related data by our deadline.)

Figures from the National Fire Protection Association show that fire departments responded to an average of 152,300 automobile fires per year from 2006 to 2010, at a rate of 17 car fires being reported per hour.

By traditional measures, the Model S is quite a safe car. Just as the top-scoring Model S had distinct advantages in our road test program by being an electric car (noise, fuel economy, etc.), the car’s design gives it an edge in crash tests, as well. Up front, there is no engine to manage in a crash, just crumple space. Likewise, at the rear, there is no fuel tank. The electric motor is only about a foot in diameter, and the battery pack is centrally situated.

The American car company recently achieved 5-star safety ratings in the front, side, and side pole crash tests and rollover evaluation conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And this isn’t just a rounded-up score, as is common; the Model S genuinely aced every main test and subtest. (Learn more about government and insurance industry tests in "Crash Test 101.")

We had our own, uh, experience with the vehicle’s crash protection last month with a run-in involving a Toyota Corolla. The front-collision in an intersection, where the Corolla was at fault, marred the fascia and hood of our beloved test car. But while we drove it from Washington, D.C., back to our center in Connecticut, the Corolla had deployed its front air bags, belched fluid, and was towed away from the scene. The Tesla’s repair estimate came in at $5,500 for parts and $2,500 for labor, in line with what our shop expected on such a high-end car. Just as our mishap doesn’t provide a comprehensive view of the Model S’s safety, neither does the fiery event in Seattle. (Learn more about car safety.)

I find it interesting how alarmed the media gets over fires involving electric cars, as if they forget that gasoline cars are essentially mobile incendiary devices that carry a large volume of flammable liquid and operate based on spark and combustion. Fortunately, this seems to be an isolated incident.

We’ll remain vigilant in watching for safety concerns with the Model S and, indeed, all passenger vehicles, but there is no indication that this is a trend.

Read our complete Tesla Model S road test.

Jeff Bartlett

Updated 10/4/13, adding data from the National Fire Protection Association.

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