2014 Nissan LeafEnlarge Photo
Are electric cars as safe as cars with internal-combustion engines?
That's been the subject of much debate--not to mention inaccurate media coverage--but the truth may entail more than a simple "yes or "no."
During an interview at the 2014 Detroit Auto Show, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) deputy administrator David Friedman told Bloomberg Businessweek that electric cars don't pose a greater safety risk than gasoline cars.
2012 Tesla Model S Charging ConnectorEnlarge Photo
But, he said, they do pose different risks.
Friedman--who currently leads the NHTSA after the recent departure of Administrator David Strickland--said an agency team, including engineers and people who study consumer behavior, is now investigating drivers' perception of electric cars.
He said consumers "aren't used to the new challenges that electric vehicles pose."
Those might range from the need to monitor external equipment connected to the car, including charging apparatus, to an awareness that electric cars' range can be greatly affected by speed, use of accessories like heaters, and the ambient temperature.
Friedman's comments came following a mild dispute with Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk over the company's response to customer complaints of overheating wall chargers.
After several reports of adapters overheating in the charging stations provided by Tesla--including one November incident that is said to have started a garage fire in Irvine, California--Tesla issued a software update and began shipping new adapters with thermal fuses meant to stop charging in the event of overheating.
Tesla Model S in flames near Kent, Washington [frame from YouTube video]Enlarge Photo
The fix was declared a formal recall last week, but Musk and other Tesla officials suggested the term "recall" was inappropriate because customers did not have to bring their cars to service centers.
Musk has also questioned whether the house fire was caused by a Model S wall charger, or the house's faulty wiring.
Friedman downplayed the drama, saying that Musk and Tesla are doing a good job of responding to the NHTSA's requests.
The recall comes after media attention to three accident-related Model S fires that occurred last fall appears to have abated.
Two fires happened in the United States after cars hit road debris, while the third happened in Mexico after the driver apparently jumped a curb. No one was injured in any of those incidents.