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Tesla Fires: What We Know, And What We Need To Find Out

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Third Tesla Model S catches fire after hitting road debris. Photo via Twitter user @NASHVILLAIN_

Third Tesla Model S catches fire after hitting road debris. Photo via Twitter user @NASHVILLAIN_

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There have now been three separate fires among roughly 20,000 Tesla Model S electric luxury sedans on the world's highways.

The most recent one, two days ago, seems to have set off a fresh round of Internet fulmination--combined with much opining on what the news would do to the falling stock price of Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA].

So let's pull together all the facts, and sort out what we know from what we still need to find out.

WHAT WE KNOW

Fire # 1

The first fire, on October 1, occurred in Kent, Washington, outside Seattle. It apparently occurred after the Model S ran over a piece of road debris later described as a "curved section that fell off a semi-trailer."

Tesla Model S in flames near Kent, Washington [frame from YouTube video]

Tesla Model S in flames near Kent, Washington [frame from YouTube video]

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That item punched a 3-inch hole through the 1/4-inch-thick armor plate protecting the pack, with a force of 25 tons, according to a report by Tesla. The car alerted the driver of a fault, and he pulled over and exited the car.

Owner Robert Carlson, a Tesla investor, said the car "performed very well under such an extreme test" during the accident; he plans to buy a replacement Model S.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a statement on Thursday say that it had "not found evidence at this time that would indicate the recent battery fire involving a Tesla Model S was the result of a vehicle safety defect or non-compliance with federal safety standards.”

Fire # 2

The second fire, on October 18, was in Mérida, a city in the Mexican Yucatán. It apparently occurred after the Model S driver jumped a curb, took out several feet of a concrete wall, and then hit a tree.

The driver--who was reported to have been under the influence of alcohol (via Jalopnik)--then fled the scene.

That's apparently not uncommon in Mexico--where the Tesla Model S is not yet sold, by the way. Video of the aftermath here (NSFW if you speak Spanish).

Tesla issued a statement saying the driver was "appreciative of the safety and performance of the car, and has asked if we can expedite delivery of his next Model S.”

This fire seems to have generated less controversy, perhaps due to its location outside the U.S. and to the severity of the accident--for which the driver may have been at fault.

Tesla Model S fire near Smyrna, Tennessee, Nov 2013 (image: Instagram - Davanh)

Tesla Model S fire near Smyrna, Tennessee, Nov 2013 (image: Instagram - Davanh)

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Fire # 3

The third fire, on Wednesday (November 6), occurred on Interstate 24 near Smyrna, Tennessee. Ironically, that town contains both a car assembly plant and a lithium-ion cell assembly facility for the Nissan Leaf electric car.

Photos that appeared on Twitter and Instagram ignited the media frenzy that grew yesterday, while the Tesla Motor Club discussion thread on the accident grew quickly.

It too apparently occurred after the Model S ran over a piece of road debris, this time reportedly described by police as a tow hitch that pierced the undercarriage.

Tesla issued this statement: “We have been in contact with the driver, who was not injured and believes the car saved his life. Our team is on its way to Tennessee to learn more about what happened in the accident.”

The company also said it did not yet know whether the battery was involved in the fire.

UPDATE: On Saturday, November 9, Tesla put up this post on its corporate blog: From A Model S Owner In Tennessee.

More

Yesterday, Federal investigators said they would review the three fires.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a statement, saying, "NHTSA will contact the local authorities who are looking into the incident to determine if there are vehicle safety implications that merit agency action."


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