Tesla fires spur federal safety investigation

Carmaker extends warranties to cover fire damage even in cases of driver error

Published: November 20, 2013 06:30 PM

Responding to reports of post accident Model S fires, Tesla attempted to address concerns with statements from its founder, Elon Musk. Tesla Motors denies there’s a problem, and in a surprising move, says it has called for a federal investigation, expanded the warranty on the Model S, and announced a coming software update.

The official investigation, announced by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is different from most on several levels. NHTSA safety investigations are often a prelude to a recall. As safety problems occur on the roads, NHTSA decides whether their prevalence or severity rises to the level of an ongoing public hazard and determines whether to investigate. If the investigation turns up a consistent safety problem, the agency asks for a recall, which the automaker usually then initiates. (Or the agency can order one if the automaker doesn’t willingly comply.)

In this case, Musk says he asked the NHTSA to investigate despite the fact that no one was injured in any of the fires. Further, Musk said the company would extend the cars’ four-year/50,000-mile warranty to cover unintentional damage from fires.

Musk said: “To reinforce how strongly we feel about the low risk of fire in our cars, we will be amending our warranty policy to cover damage due to a fire, even if due to driver error. Unless a Model S owner actively tries to destroy the car, they are covered. Our goal here is to eliminate any concern about the cost of such an event and ensure that over time the Model S has the lowest insurance cost of any car at our price point. Either our belief in the safety of our car is correct and this is a minor cost or we are wrong, in which case the right thing is for Tesla to bear the cost rather than the car buyer.”
The other thing that’s surprising is that Tesla has already issued something of a fix. After the first fire, Musk said there would be no recall of the Model S. Now he says the company has already issued a fix.

All Model S’s produced so far are equipped with a height-adjustable air suspension and a 3G wireless connection. So the company is pushing out an over-the-air software update that will leave the air suspension on a higher setting on the highway than it had previously. (High-speed impacts with road debris caused the two fires in the United States, which fall under the investigation.) Unfortunately, we would expect this to be detrimental to both efficiency and handling. Musk says this “fix” will be rolled out to all existing and new production Model S’s.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the latest investigation is that it comes in response to an issue that has lead to no injuries or deaths. In every Tesla fire, the car has shut down and given the occupants several minutes of warning before the fire started. It then burned mainly the front end of the car, not the passenger compartment. That’s much different than the scenarios common among the 153,000 fires per year, or about 17 per hour, in mainly gasoline-powered cars. In fact, according to Tesla and other sources, the rate of fires in gasoline cars is about four times as frequent as in Model S’s.

In the end, whether Musk or NHTSA asked for the investigation first, the question to be answered may be more about perception than actual safety. Musk said: “If a false perception about the safety of electric cars is allowed to linger, it will delay the advent of sustainable transport and increase the risk of global climate change, with potentially disastrous consequences worldwide. That cannot be allowed to happen.”

We look forward to seeing the findings from the NHTSA investigation.

–Eric Evarts

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