NHTSA Launches Formal Investigation Of Tesla Model S Fires

November 19, 2013

The last few weeks haven't been good for Tesla.

There was that disappointing earnings call that caused the company's stock price to fall (further). Workers were injured in an accident at the company's manufacturing facility in Freemont, California. There were even rumors afoot that George Clooney hates Tesla

BE SURE TO READ: Tesla Fires: What We Know, And What We Need To Find Out

Oh, and one other thing: since the beginning of October, three Model S sedans have caught fire

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is now launching a full investigation into those fires. According to a bulletin posted to the NHTSA website (PDF), the probe will focus on the two incidents that involved roadway debris, which either deformed or breached the Model S' lithium-ion battery pack: 

The Office of Defects Investigation (ODI) is aware of two incidents occurring on US public highways in which the subject vehicles caught fire after an undercarriage strike with metallic roadway debris. The resulting impact damage to the propulsion battery tray (baseplate) initiated thermal runaway. In each incident, the vehicle's battery monitoring system provided escalating visible and audible warnings, allowing the driver to execute a controlled stop and exit the vehicle before the battery emitted smoke and fire.

Just last week, Tesla CEO Elon Musk insisted that the Model S is extremely safe -- and in fairness, we should point out that no one was injured in any of the fires. (Not even the one in Mexico, which was far more severe than just running over some debris in the road.) Sadly, that hasn't helped Tesla stock, which has been in freefall since news of the first fire broke.

LEARN MORE: Tesla Model S Catches Fire: Is This Tesla's 'Toyota' Moment?

Yesterday, Musk softened his position a bit. In an article posted to the Tesla blog, he announced three very important, very interesting things:

1. Tesla is updating the Model S' software to provide greater ground clearance, reducing the risk posed by roadway debris.

2. Tesla is updating its warranty to cover fires -- even when they're due to "driver error".

3. Tesla asked NHTSA to conduct a full investigation into the three battery fires that have occurred this fall. This was clearly not the route that Musk wanted to take, but he spins it as best he can:

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.

NHTSA's investigation is the first of a three-step process, which will take months to carry out and which may or may not end in a recall. Should Musk's worst fears come to pass and a complete recall be initiated, all 13,108 units of the 2013 Tesla Model S could be included. 

Stay tuned.

[via AutoNews


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