Tesla Model S burns after accident; Elon Musk tries to put out fires
Photos of burning cars spread through the internet with amazing speed. Usually, they're Italian exotics, or rare vehicles that are special enough to warrant the attention. In the last couple years, we've seen or heard of several new hybrid vehicles ignite for several reasons - post-Sandy saltwater-infused Fisker Karmas self-immolating in a New Jersey storage area, and even Chevrolet Volts that had finished U.S. NHTSA crash testing and caught fire in a parking lot. The bad news can either help push an already struggling automaker under, as happened with Fisker, or require plenty of good PR work to explain to a skeptical public that these incidents are the exception and not the rule.
Last week, it was Tesla's turn to face the scrutiny after photos of one of its Model S sedans on fire hit the web thanks to an anonymous Jalopnik reader. Apparently, the Model S driver hit a large metal object on a Seattle-area road, which levered itself up into the lithium-ion battery pack. At some point, the pack ignited, and it took firefighters a serious amount of time to contain. There were apparently several times that firefighters accessed the pack only to discover that the mix was still burning. Tesla's instructions for firefighters is to douse the battery pack in water, but to leave it intact; they punched several holes in the top to make getting water in their easier, but that only allowed more air in to feed the flames. A combination of dry chemical retardant and water eventually doused the remaining fire.
Afterwards, Tesla's head honcho Elon Musk sent out an explanation to help ease fears of both owners and investors since the company's stock tanked by nearly 10 per cent in the two days following the incident. Musk blamed the metal piece that was hit as the real instigator, saying that it hit the underside with over 25 tons of force, which was enough to tear a six-cm hole in the thick armor plating that runs the length of the Model S.
Also, the fire was contained to the first of 16 battery packs, and that both the internal venting and structure performed perfectly since none of the other packs were ignited, nor was there any damage to the vehicle's cabin.
"Had a conventional gasoline car encountered the same object on the highway, the result could have been far worse, " Musk said. "A typical gasoline car only has a thin metal sheet protecting the underbody, leaving it vulnerable to destruction of the fuel supply lines or fuel tank, which causes a pool of gasoline to form and often burn the entire car to the ground. In contrast, the combustion energy of our battery pack is only about 10 per cent of the energy contained in a gasoline tank and is divided into 16 modules with firewalls in between. As a consequence, the effective combustion potential is only about one per cent that of the fuel in a comparable gasoline sedan."
Musk's final comments are that given the number of vehicle fires per miles driven, you're five times less likely to have a fire in a Model S than you would in a traditional gas-powered car.
So that leaves us with the big question: how does this event affect your perception of electric vehicles? Are you any more or less likely to consider one? Has Musk done enough to smooth over your concerns?
Let us know in the comments.