The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will investigate the design of Tesla Motors Inc.’s electric car, Model S. This comes after two vehicle fires. NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation said it is aware of two incidents in which vehicles caught fire after an undercarriage hit some type of metallic roadway debris, which may cause a thermal reaction and fire if it intrudes the propulsion battery. The resulting damage to the propulsion battery tray, or baseplate, sparked the fire, the ODI said. The ODI said:
In each incident, the vehicle’s battery monitoring system provided escalating visible and audible warnings, allowing the driver to execute a controlled stop and exit the vehicle before the battery emitted smoke and fire.
About 13,100 Tesla Model S cars are subject to the investigation. In a blog post published last month, Tesla CEO Elon Musk criticized the scrutiny his company is getting. Musk said:
Reading the headlines, it is … easy to assume that the Tesla Model S and perhaps electric cars in general have a greater propensity to catch fire than gasoline cars when nothing could be further from the truth.
Musk said there are now more than 19,000 Model S vehicles on the road, making an average of one fire per 6,333 cars, and added that a gasoline tank has 10 times more combustion energy than the battery pack. He added:
Moreover, the Model S battery pack also has internal firewalls between the 16 modules and a firewall between the battery pack and passenger compartment. This effectively limits the fire energy to a few percent that of a gasoline car and is the reason why [one victim] was able to retrieve his pens and papers from the glove compartment completely untouched after the recent fire (caused by a high-speed impact with a tow hitch).
The U.S. Fire Administration said in a report issued this year that between 2008 and 2010, there were about 194,000 highway vehicle fires each year. Last month, Tesla was hit with a putative securities action in California federal court by an investor who said Tesla and other executives made false statements regarding the safety of a vehicle’s battery pack, leading to a $6.5 billion market loss in six weeks. The suit said Tesla, which designs, develops, manufactures and sells electric vehicles, had called its Model S vehicle “The Safest Car In America” before reports that consumers’ battery packs were catching fire and bursting into flames during use.
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