Tesla CEO Elon Musk Expects NHTSA to Clear Model S in Fires – Tesla Is Not Working on a Model S Safety Fix

NOV 25 2013 BY ERIC LOVEDAY 32

Tesla Model S Expected to be Cleared by NHTSA, Says Tesla CEO Elon Musk

Tesla Model S Expected to be Cleared by NHTSA, Says Tesla CEO Elon Musk

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk went on record late last week saying that he fully expects the NHTSA to clear the Model S after it completes its investigation of the 2 US fire-related incidents.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Musk stated:

“In both cases it was a large piece of metal essentially braced against the tarmac.”

Musk Expects NHTSA to Clear Model S

Musk Expects NHTSA to Clear Model S

As Musk says, this occurrence of a metal object piercing the underbody of a vehicle could happen to any automobile on the road.  Musk claims that the Model S battery pack may have actually prevented injury to the occupants of the vehicle s involved by blocking the object from intruding on the passenger compartment.

“I’m not saying it can’t happen again.  I’m saying in any kind of low-speed impact, you’re fine.”

“Any car, Model S or not Model S, the underside is going to get significantly damaged if you drive over a large metal object.”

Musk says that his team of engineers are not working on a fix for the Model S, as there is not an issue with it.

Once again, Musk reiterates that nobody was hurt in these two incidents, which indicates there’s not a safety-related problem.

The only other reason that the NHTSA could investigate is for economic losses suffered by the Model S owners due to defective materials.  Musk defends this by saying that there are no economic losses as the result of these 2 fires since Tesla now covers fire loss under its extensive warranty.

According to USA Today:

“In the telephone interview, Musk also defended the battery placement in the Model S beneath the passenger compartment and about a half-foot above the road. That gives the car a low center of gravity and great handling, he said, while also protecting passengers from debris coming through the floorboards. The U.S. crashes occurred with so much force that, in a different car, the objects could have come through the floor and hurt people.”

Source: USA Today

Categories: Tesla

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32 Comments on "Tesla CEO Elon Musk Expects NHTSA to Clear Model S in Fires – Tesla Is Not Working on a Model S Safety Fix"

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Dan Frederiksen

It’s not a major issue but if possible I would look into what caused the fires in the 3 cases and see if anything easy could be changed that would prevent it. I assume the fires were caused by short circuits so if that could be detected and powered off before turning to flame or avoided that would be nice. It could be as simple as a plastic collar or two.

Jouni Valkonen

That is a good idea. The damaged cells probably cannot be drained as they are short circuited, but it could be possible that the near by cells are drained from chemical energy. This could slow down the spread of fire.

Also it is perhaps possible to increase the cooling rate of damaged block. This should also slow down the spreading of fire.

saabluster

They know what caused the fires. That battery chemistry can catch fire if the battery is penetrated or deformed. And that is what happened in all cases. In engineering there are always compromises that have to be made. You try to balance all the variables as best you can. They could have used a chemistry that would not flame when penetrated but that would compromise every single car that rolls off the line by drastically reducing the range or if one wanted to keep the range drastically increasing the price of the car.

They made the decision to not sacrifice range/cost and use good engineering to mitigate the low frequency occurrences(fires due to accidents). So they have designed it to control and direct the burn in the few times that type of thing would ever occur which would in many cases anyway mean the totaling of the car even if the battery did not erupt in flames.

From an engineering and business case they have done a stellar job balancing the variables.

Ocean Railroader

I hope Elon Musk is right in that if they find something that is wrong even if it’s small and they do call a recall it could wreak apart Tesla’s reputation. I would at least say that we are looking into it to see if it’s a electronic thing or a maniacal thing to double check that nothing is wrong. Not talk like this in that this could back fire big time on him and his company.

Brandon

not gonna happen

Foo

I think it’s a maniacal thing.

Loboc

I think it is inappropriate for Musk to speculate on what the government will do. Tesla should just wait and see what action is required (if any).

Jouni Valkonen

Mr. Musk is Mr. Inappropriate.

Dave R

“Musk says that his team of engineers are not working on a fix for the Model S, as there is not an issue with it.”

Then why did they rush out a firmware update which raises the suspension much to the chagrin of many Model S owners without a way to override it?

Anon

I felt that comment was also a tad disingenuous… I would count firmware updates as an ongoing “fix” to limit battery penetration from significant road debris. The current change will have to be addressed by currently unhappy customers who’ve paid for a fully functional feature, in the near future. Wonder if a debris sensor will get added to the air suspension option? Personally, I would expect more tweaks to the firmware over the issue, in the coming weeks.

io

“Musk reiterates that nobody was hurt in these two incidents, which indicates there’s not a safety-related problem.”

So… Say an appliance causes a house to burn down to the ground, but occupants manage to escape uninjured. “Hey, none was hurt, no problem!”

Am I the only one here who sees this kind of reasoning as simply irresponsible?

Anon

Musk was speaking from the context of, “compaired to gasoline explosions, fireballs and incinerated passengers”, his vehicles (by comparison) are not a safety problem. So from that POV and supporting data– his reasoning is spot on. With Musk, proper context is everything.

CherylG

GM is recalling 18,000 Camaros because the airbag warning stickers affixed to the sun visors are peeling in some cases. GM voluntarily recalled the cars.

Which is more of a safety problem, a peeling sunvisor sticker or a vehicle that catches fire due to battery thermal runaway ?

As for “spot on” reasoning, why is it that the Leaf and Volt have had no thermal runaway fires even though their population of vehicles on the road, and years in service is many times greater than the Model S?

Since the Volt contains both a Li-ion battery AND a gasoline fuel tank, how is it that there have been no fires ? If we were to follow Musk’s “spot on” reasoning, there would be a significantly greater number of Volt fires than Model S fires because gas cars are bursting into flames left and right.

Where is Musk’s “supporting data” that shows his EV is safer than other EVs?

Model S fires = 3

Volt fires = 0

LEAF fires = 0

Why do other manufacturers protect their batteries better than Tesla?

Foo

The cars you mention have much smaller batteries than the Model S. They are easier to protect by default.

We also don’t know if the other manufactures actually “protected their batteries better” than Tesla. You’re drawing a conclusion without evidence.

James

The reason LEAF and Volt cars have had no fires is that they have a lower energy density in their batteries. It is as simple as that, as energy density goes up so does the flamability of things generally.

If you want to drive longer between stops, you’ll have a more dangerous energy store on board!

sven

Have any Volts or Leafs had their battery cases punctured? It’s not just the energy density of the batteries. Other factors are the location of the battery in the car, the shape of the battery case, the proximity of the battery case to the road, the type of metal used to make the battery case, and the thickness of the metal used in the battery case. The Tesla Model S uses quarter inch thick aluminum (Musk claims it’s armor) for its battery case in a skateboard design that is in very close proximity to the road.

Foo

@io

No, not a fair comparison. The fair comparison would be: If the appliances were somehow heavily damaged such that they short-circuited and caught fire. Perfectly understandable, but also very rare.

Most of the appliances in your home (stove, toaster, high dryer, etc.) could easily become very unsafe if damaged “in just the right way”. But, without such damage, they do not, by themselves, present a “safety problem”. Sure, one is careful not to damage them, or use them incorrectly (e.g., make toast in the bath), just like one should *try* not to drive over road debris in your car, but the requisit damage *does* sometimes happen, and danger does sometimes result.

Also, most appliances would not warn you that they had been damaged and were now dangerous. You’d probably have to wait for your smoke alarm, or a (possibly deadly) electric shock, to do that.

Dave R

Yep, exactly.

A better analogy would be pinching the cord of an appliance under the foot of a chair, for example, which then causes a fire. You wouldn’t blame the cord of the appliance, would you?

io

Let’s keep this fair indeed. First, the damaged Model S didn’t warn the driver of a danger, but merely that they required service and/or were shutting down. The sign that something was seriously wrong was smoke.

Next, Musk wasn’t commenting on the safety of an undamaged car, but specifically the two Model S which hit road debris.

Again, where I disagree with him isn’t whether the car is safe enough under those circumstances (I don’t know, and it will be up to the NHTSA to assess anyway), but the reason for his outright dismissal of the problem.

I sure am glad that other manufacturers and other industries don’t simply assert that something is safe just because it didn’t injure anyone yet…

Foo

Yes, let’s be fair. You make it sound like Musk’s assertion about safety is just pulled out of thin air… as opposed to in-depth knowledge of a vehicle that was designed, at its core, to be safer than any other car on the road. As far as I can see, is it indeed that. This has been proven out by the NHTSA safety testing and even the performance of the Model S in these accidents, which suggest that the car is exceptionally safe. I personally would not have wanted to be a different car if any of these accidents had happened to me.

io

You didn’t read or didn’t understand what I was saying.
I don’t have data to question Musk’s statement about the safety of the car. I question the only reason he gave for it.

“Nobody was hurt in these two incidents, which indicates there’s not a safety-related problem” is a fallacy. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Taser54

Note that Tesla made a bean-counting decision here. Ford did this with their Pintos too. It’s very early in the game for the Model S, but when someone gets injured ( a larger accident with road debris) then what?

Be very careful Tesla.

SeattleTeslaGuy

Sorry but that is just not the same. The leaked memo from Ford was about the decision not to fix the gas tank problem because it would cost more than settling death/injury/damage lawsuits. In other words, corporate indifference to deaths caused by their design. Interesting to also note that the Pinto’s death rate due to fire was about average for cars of that era. In Tesla’s case, there were no injuries at all. A battery fire is a slow moving event – in the two US cases, the car even warned the drivers to pull over before a fire was even evident. The Mexico crash was a high speed crash that would have likely lead to severe injury and maybe death in an ICE car. Apparently that fire started after the driver exited the vehicle, unharmed. All three owners attribute their lack of injuries to the safe nature of the car.

Taser54

Again, early in the game. All it will take is one injury-someone hits road debris, crashes, and is rendered unconscious. Gambling.

Foo

But how, exactly, is that any different to the very same thing happening *every single day* to people driving (and crashing) their gas-powered cars? The media doesn’t report on such incidents as alarming or unusual, vehicle recalls and redesigns aren’t immediately called for (“hmm, GM’s decision to base the engine design on combustion seems to have been a real gamble”), GM stock doesn’t crash.

io

You’re thinking rationally. The media and the stock market do not.

Liuping

In both road debris caused fire incidents, the passenger compartment was not breached by fire, so technically if the driver just sat there unconscious, he would not have been hurt.

io

Assuming someone would have called the fire dpt, yes.

I’m sure that, while driving, you’ve already come across an apparently intact gas-powered car on fire on the side of the road.
Did you dial 911 or kept going assuming someone else already did anyway?

sven

Have you ever heard of smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning? The passenger compartment isn’t airtight. So technically if the driver just sat there unconscious, he might have died.

HVACman

What Elon says and what Tesla actually is doing behind the scenes may be two different things. Tesla’s engineers made a decision to go with aluminum shielding rather than steel and to change that decision now would take a lot of fundamental re-engineering on a skateboard style platform. Perhaps their tests have shown these battery fires due to battery damage were “flukes” and their shielding is robust enough, or maybe they are still testing and aren’t working on a fix YET. Time will tell.

Volts and Leafs have seen absolutely zero on-road battery damage/fire issues with an order of magnitude more vehicles and road mileage on them than the Model S. That continues to give me pause…

sven

How does changing from aluminum shielding to a hardened steel shielding “take a lot of fundamental re-engineering”?

According to Elon Musk, since the Volt has a gas tank in addition to its battery pack it should be more susceptible to a fire than a Tesla Model S.

Bill Howland

Good serious discussion here. I can’t add to it. Just enjoying all the commentary.