Tesla’s second annual Impact Report, released earlier this month, underscores a reality that can’t be emphasized enough: Electric car fires are rare.
The electric car maker notes, as CEO Elon Musk has for years, that the frequency of EV fire headlines can be deceiving. There were almost 190,000 vehicle fires in the U.S. in 2019, and they happen in gasoline vehicles at a much higher rate. It notes that from 2012 to 2020 there was about one Tesla vehicle fire per 205 million miles traveled—versus one per 19 million miles traveled for all types, citing data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and U.S. Department of Transportation.
“Due to this public misconception, we decided to start publishing vehicle fire data annually,” the company said.
Tesla fire safety - 2020 Impact Report, August 2021
In order to provide data that can be compared to that from the NFPA, Tesla says that its data set includes vehicle fires caused by structure fires, arson and other reasons unrelated to the vehicle, which it says “account for some of the Tesla vehicle fires over this time period.”
Tesla claims that when the media reports on a vehicle fire, it’s usually reporting on an EV fire. “This is likely a result of the novelty of EV technology, rather than the prevalence of EV-related fires compared to ICE vehicle-related fires,” it speculates.
The company however neglects to point out one likely reason for that “novelty”—that it’s the intensity and duration of EV fires that is so noteworthy. It’s also relatively rare to have a gasoline vehicle that hasn’t been driven suddenly catch fire in the middle of the night, during or after charging. And generally speaking, gasoline vehicle fires are infernos and they're over quick; they don't smolder for hours despite efforts to extinguish them.
Chevrolet Bolt EV fire - Vermont State Police
Tesla pointed out that it makes detailed information about its vehicles available to first responders—something that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) warned was insufficient earlier this year.
Looking at that specific subset of vehicle fires, the results are quite different. According to the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), the research arm of the insurance-funded Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the Tesla Model S has a non-crash fire claim frequency of 1.7 and 2.0, respectively, for single-motor and dual-motor versions in terms of claims per 10,000 insured vehicle years. The Model X is at 2.2, and the Model 3 is at just 0.4.
For the Model S and Model X, that’s higher than the average non-crash fire claims of just 0.8 across all luxury, sports cars, and luxury SUVs.
Tesla Model S fire at Supercharger station, Brokelandsheia, Norway, Jan 2016 [frame from VG TV]
To add another asterisk to those figures, they don’t differentiate between incidents that might have started with a home electrical issue or charging hardware.
Those HLDI figures, prepared for NHTSA, were last released in December 2019, including data through 2018. We’ve reached out to them to see if they’ve been updated since then and will update this piece if so.