Tesla Asks NHTSA To Investigate Fires, Will Fully Warrant Any Model S Fire, Confirms Ride Height Changes

NOV 19 2013 BY CODY OSBORNE 35

Recent Tesla Model S Fire In Tennessee

Recent Tesla Model S Fire In Tennessee

Many feared last week that there may be an inherent risk in the location of the battery pack of the Tesla Model S.  Some even mentioned that it could be compounded by the vehicle’s low ground clearance and the forward section of the Model S’ battery pack.

It seems Tesla not only heard these concerns, but is now responding, and in a big way. tesla-logoThe automaker, in a written Mission Statement by the CEO Elon Musk (below), has come up with a three point action plan for dealing with battery fire risk:

  • First, we have rolled out an over-the-air update to the air suspension (all the details on that here) that will result in greater ground clearance at highway speeds. To be clear, this is about reducing the chances of underbody impact damage, not improving safety.
  • Second, we have requested that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conduct a full investigation as soon as possible into the fire incidents.
  • Third, 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.

The blog post very clearly states that the three high-speed collisions “caused no serious injuries or deaths.”  Tesla compares those numbers to the “400 people that were killed, and 1,200 people that were seriously injured” in automotive fires from accidents in the last year or so “since the Model S went into production.”

At the same time as the blog post (below) the NHSTA has indeed announced a probe into the Tesla Model S fires. In a statement to CNBC, the NHTSA notes the investigation – but not that it was directly a result of a Tesla request:

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is deeply committed to safeguarding the driving public.  The agency has opened a formal investigation to determine if a safety defect exists in certain Tesla Model S vehicles. The agency’s investigation was prompted by recent incidents in Washington State and Tennessee that resulted in battery fires due to undercarriage strikes with roadway debris.”

Elon Musk Tweets - Think You Know the Answer to Musk's Question?

Elon Musk Tweets – Think You Know the Answer to Musk’s Question?

 

The Mission of Tesla

Chairman, Product Architect & CEO

Our goal when we created Tesla a decade ago was the same as it is today: to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible. If we could have done that with our first product, we would have, but that was simply impossible to achieve for a startup company that had never built a car and that had one technology iteration and no economies of scale. Our first product was going to be expensive no matter what it looked like, so we decided to build a sports car, as that seemed like it had the best chance of being competitive with its gasoline alternatives.

Elon Musk Says Model S Now Has Fire Warranty

Elon Musk Says Model S Now Has Fire Warranty

I suspected that this could be misinterpreted as Tesla believing that there was a shortage of sports cars for rich people, so I described the three step “master plan” for getting to compelling and affordable electric vehicles in my first blog piece about our company. This was unfortunately almost entirely ignored.

In order to get to that end goal, big leaps in technology are required, which naturally invites a high level of scrutiny. That is fair, as new technology should be held to a higher standard than what has come before. However, there should also be some reasonable limit to how high such a standard should be, and we believe that this has been vastly exceeded in recent media coverage.

How Does the Tesla Model S Fire Risk Compare to Gasoline Cars?

Since the Model S went into production last year, there have been more than a quarter million gasoline car fires in the United States alone, resulting in over 400 deaths and approximately 1,200 serious injuries (extrapolating 2012 NFPA data). However, the three Model S fires, which only occurred after very high-speed collisions and caused no serious injuries or deaths, received more national headlines than all 250,000+ gasoline fires combined. The media coverage of Model S fires vs. gasoline car fires is disproportionate by several orders of magnitude, despite the latter actually being far more deadly.

Reading the headlines, it is therefore 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.

Journalists with a deep knowledge of the car industry, such as the news editor of Automotive News, understand and attempt to rebut this notion, but they have been drowned out by an onslaught of popular and financial media seeking to make a sensation out of something that a simple Google search would reveal to be false. I would also like to express appreciation for the investigative journalists who took the time to research and write an accurate article.

The degree to which this is outrageous is described well in the above-mentioned Automotive News article. There are now substantially more than the 19,000 Model S vehicles on the road that were reported in our Q3 shareholder letter for an average of one fire per at least 6,333 cars, compared to the rate for gasoline vehicles of one fire per 1,350 cars. By this metric, you are more than four and a half times more likely to experience a fire in a gasoline car than a Model S! Considering the odds in the absolute, you are more likely to be struck by lightning in your lifetime than experience even a non-injurious fire in a Tesla.

Those metrics tell only part of the story. The far more deadly nature of a gasoline car fire deserves to be re-emphasized. Since the Model S went into production mid last year, there have been over 400 deaths and 1,200 serious injuries in the United States alone due to gasoline car fires, compared to zero deaths and zero injuries due to Tesla fires anywhere in the world.

Model S Gets Flipped for Safety After Crash Tests...US' Safest Car Now Comes With Fire Warranty

Model S Gets Flipped for Safety After Crash Tests…US’ Safest Car Now Comes With Fire Warranty

There is a real, physical reason for this: a gasoline tank has 10 times more combustion energy than our battery pack. 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 Dr. Shibayama 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). It is also why arsonists tend to favor gasoline. Trying to set the side of a building on fire with a battery pack is far less effective.

What About Safety Overall?

Our primary concern is not for the safety of the vehicle, which can easily be replaced, but for the safety of our customers and the families they entrust to our cars. Based on the Model S track record so far, you have a zero percent chance of being hurt in an accident resulting in a battery fire, but what about other types of accidents? Despite multiple high-speed accidents, there have been no deaths or serious injuries in a Model S of any kind ever. Of course, at some point, the law of large numbers dictates that this, too, will change, but the record is long enough already for us to be extremely proud of this achievement. This is why the Model S achieved the lowest probability of injury of any car ever tested by the US government. The probability of injury is the most accurate statistical figure of merit, showing clearly that the Model S is safer in an accident than any other vehicle without exception. It is literally impossible for another car to have a better safety track record, as it would have to possess mystical powers of healing.

Further Actions

While we believe the evidence is clear that there is no safer car on the road than the Model S, we are taking three specific actions.

Tesla Active Air Suspension Low Setting Disabled At Highway Speed In New Update

Tesla Active Air Suspension Low Setting Disabled At Highway Speed

First, we have rolled out an over-the-air update to the air suspension that will result in greater ground clearance at highway speeds. To be clear, this is about reducing the chances of underbody impact damage, not improving safety. The theoretical probability of a fire injury is already vanishingly small and the actual number to date is zero. Another software update expected in January will give the driver direct control of the air suspension ride height transitions.

Second, we have requested that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conduct a full investigation as soon as possible into the fire incidents. While we think it is highly unlikely, if something is discovered that would result in a material improvement in occupant fire safety, we will immediately apply that change to new cars and offer it as a free retrofit to all existing cars. Given that the incidence of fires in the Model S is far lower than combustion cars and that there have been no resulting injuries, this did not at first seem like a good use of NHTSA’s time compared to the hundreds of gasoline fire deaths per year that warrant their attention. However, there is a larger issue at stake: 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.

Third, 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.

All of these actions are taken in order to make clear the confidence we have in our product and to eliminate any misperceptions regarding the integrity of our technology and the safety of our cars.

Source: Tesla Motors Blog

Categories: Tesla

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35 Comments on "Tesla Asks NHTSA To Investigate Fires, Will Fully Warrant Any Model S Fire, Confirms Ride Height Changes"

newest oldest most voted
CherylG

There “definitely” won’t be a recall.

There is no safety problem.

This is all just a fabrication by the media.

Oh, on the other hand.

vdiv

There is a safety problem that the NHTSA should be investigating immediately and thoroughly. The problem is with the state and safety of the interstate highway system. With bridges being structurally deficient and collapsing, with roads poorly made, poorly marked and poorly maintained, and with safety and traffic regulations not being properly enforced everyone in any vehicle is at risk.

What the NHTSA could do is assign roads safety ratings just like they do to vehicles. If people know that the road they take every day with their kids in the back is unsafe they will not be as content as they currently are.

David Stone

Maybe you should re-read the statement above…

Sounds like there could be voluntary recall, similar to what GM did.

“While we think it is highly unlikely, if something is discovered that would result in a material improvement in occupant fire safety, we will immediately apply that change to new cars and offer it as a free retrofit to all existing cars.”

taser54

Note that they said, “fire safety” not “fire prevention” Tesla appears satisfied with the car once it is on fire.

Hmm could just be semantics.

Mark C

Maybe Tesla couldn’t find a problem with their car, but did not want it to look like they were sweeping the dirt under the rug. So, in the interest of a fresh set of eyes, they called for help.

I’d say that is a very wise move, admitting that it is possible they may have missed something and would rather have someone qualified check behind them rather than let pride destroy them.

GeorgeS

I would like to know more about this fire wall between the passenger compartment and the battery pack. This is new to me. Could it be the floor pan ? We already know about the compartments and the fire retardent that are in the pack. The compartmentalization kept the fire out of the passenger compartment in all cases.

So Elon musk has decided to gamble that the NHTSA will exonerate his car with this investigation. Boy I bet there was a lot of discussion about that prior to issuing this statement.

Do you think he will win on the gamble?

I imagine there has been a lot of discussion at Tesla about the best way to handle this situation. Probably a fair amount of debate behind Musk’s statement as well…especially since we know the software patch first started going out on Friday and owners have been more than curious since then.

I think this was a good play by Musk/Tesla. They were very likely to get investigated anyway. Why not request it and get a third party to clear your name (at no cost), which is the overwhelmingly likely outcome. If they don’t make a strong statement in support of the investigation, they will appear to be afraid of it.

The warranty of the car was a no brainer. It will cost them very little in the grand scheme (~$200k / year at the current incident rate) and keep piece of mind of owners/insurers.

The real killer here is this matter will linger for 3 – 6 months now. X-mas season should be a big boost to Tesla as their stores are positioned in malls and X-mas being one of the top luxury car sales seasons. I wonder if this will hurt them a bit.

Dan

Actually Tesla is misleading about requesting an Investigation. The NHTSA opened their investigation independently and also have said they are unaware of any request from Tesla. http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/the-exchange/tesla-is-playing-with-fire%E2%80%94and-could-get-badly-burned-210435781.html

Nelson

“Third, 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.”

Another nail for the internal combustion engine and gasoline coffin.

NPNS!
Volt#671

scottf200

This is a great move for the insurance reasons. So they don’t get raised unnecessarily.

I was wondering if insurance rates should go down now. If the MFG is covering fire, that’s one less thing for the insurance company.

Nate

Probably not by much, if any. Rates are already low on the Model S compared to high performance sports sedans in the same price range.

pjwood

Which then continues with “so long as an owner doesn’t actively try to destroy the car”. That might constitute a fine line, at some point.

These cars could be worth 50-60k, outside of warranty. I’m still a fan, but it isn’t great to think about an insurer turning to Kelly’s Blue Book, who by that time will have them writing a check for a 20k “total”. Simply changing the ride height won’t stop a couple more fires. Too few to statistically worry about, but it would suck not to insure for replacement value and then wind up on the side of the road.

Erik

The warranty is the only smart move. If Tesla is wrong and there is an inherent defect they are finished, warranty or not. If they don’t take a strong position behind their product they may be finished even if their product is sound.

scottf200

Wait…but GM added a questionably unnecessary plate to the battery cavity in the Volt and that went over great. I did it on my 2011 simply for resale and not for the safety.

scottf200

I could not find the insideevs article but from Jan 2012
http://www.hybridcars.com/gm-reinforces-volt-battery-customer-service-gesture-34998/

Nelson

What I’d like to know is how many Model S have crashed and “NOT” caught on fire.
The only one I know of is the Restaurant crash.
http://insideevs.com/tesla-model-s-crashes-through-restaurant-driver-blames-it-on-unintended-acceleration/
I find it hard to believe only 4 Model S accidents have occurred.

NPNS!
Volt#671

There is many more accidents that have not resulted in a fire, they just don’t make the news, lol.

Here is one for example…and NHSTA crashes didn’t result in any fires either

saabluster

NHTSA not NHSTA
Tired of seeing people getting this wrong. Including the author of this article.

Title fixed…as for what Jay is saying, perhaps he’s referring to some crash test agency I’ve never heard of.

Someone posted a link in the comments recently showing a Model S running over road debris, lifting it into the air, landing and continuing on. Pretty amazing.

EV

the fact that america is full of brainwashed retards is sad

taser54

Now Now, Tesla fans aren’t that bad.

—————————-
As to Tesla, they are gambling on not having another fire in the time it takes NHTSA to finish its investigation. If there is one, Tesla has dug itself into a deep hole. If there isn’t one, there still is the chance that the NHTSA declares a problem.

This is strictly a bean-counter move by Tesla. It’s a shame.

David Stone

Yeah, and America is so alone in this regard 😉

I believe the PC term is “mentally challenged”.
I also have no clue what you are talking about.
Your comment could go a lot of ways.

pk

This part made me chuckle.

“It is also why arsonists tend to favor gasoline. Trying to set the side of a building on fire with a battery pack is far less effective.”

Bloggin

Nice Job Tesla!

RDOCA

Chief Executive Elon Musk Tweeted on Tuesday that last Friday the company’s head of regulatory affairs, Jim Chen, “invited NHTSA senior staff to conduct a review of Model S.”

But David Strickland, administrator of NHTSA, was quoted by the Detroit News as saying Tesla did not ask for the government probe.

CherylG

Another smackdown of Tesla by NHTSA.

philba

I think these moves by Tesla are smart. The NHTSA investigation will be more credible than their own. Raising the minimum level of the cars with air suspension buys them time. And warrantying the car for fire means that it’s a non-issue for the buyers and insurance cos.

By the way, I’m pretty confident the NHTSA will give the car a clean bill.