Third Tesla Model S fire raises fresh questions, NHTSA query
Another Tesla Model S involved in a traffic crash caught fire near Smyrna, Tenn., on Wednesday after an apparent strike by road debris — the third such report in six weeks. As with the previous two cases, the news sparked a reaction from investors, who sent Tesla shares plunging, and Tesla itself, which said no one was injured and that it was investigating the cause.
But this latest incident does raise a troubling comparison for Tesla's 19,000 Model S owners: Even though it has fewer electric cars on the road than its competitors, none have reported similar fires after crashes. And while liquid-fueled vehicles suffer about 170,000 such fires every year, federal data show they take place in only 0.1 percent of all crashes.
"To have one instance of fire from road debris is a fluke," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety. "To have two road debris fires in a vehicle population that small is highly unusual."
On Tuesday, Tesla said it had delivered more than 19,000 Model S sedans to date, with demand running well ahead of its ability to build cars. Tesla spokeswoman Liz Jarvis-Shean said the automaker had been in contact with the Tennessee driver of the wrecked Model S "who was not injured and believes the car saved his life.
"Our team is on its way to Tennessee to learn more about what happened in the accident. We will provide more information when we’re able to do so," she said.
The photos posted to Instagram and in a Tesla owners forum show the car's front end heavily damaged, but no other vehicles nearby. The first fire of a Tesla Model S in Washington in September was due to the vehicle striking a piece of metal road debris that punctured its battery pack. The second, in Mexico last month, happened after a speeding driver lost control and struck a brick wall. U.S. auto safety officials declined to open a formal probe into the Seattle-area fire, saying the data showed no signs of any defect in the Model S.
While the advent of mass-produced electric vehicles raised concerns over the fire safety of lithium-ion batteries, only the Tesla Model S seems to have been plagued by such reports so far. Nissan has sold nearly 70,000 Leaf electric vehicles worldwide; Nissan spokesman Brian Brockman said to date "there have been no fires involving the Nissan LEAF, either through extensive and extreme testing or in the real world." Last year, a Nissan Leaf was caught in a Colorado wildfire which engulfed the vehicle — but its lithium-ion battery pack did not burn.
The only other electrified car with a comparable base of sales would be General Motors' Chevy Volt, which uses a gas-powered engine to recharge a large lithium-ion battery pack. So far, GM has sold roughly 50,000 Volts worldwide, most of them in the United States. While two Volts did catch fire in testing in 2010 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, GM issued a recall to fix a cooling issue. Since then, "to GM's knowledge the Volt has not experienced a fire on the road," said spokeswoman Michelle Malcho.