Top 13 In 2013, #4: Teslas Catch On Fire, Musk Rebuts

On October 2, a video showing the front of a Tesla Model S engulfed in flames went “viral” and hit the airwaves of the 24-hour news channels. Speculation was abound, with many claiming that the fire was proof of the inherent dangers of housing so much electrical potential in such a small space. Tesla came back swinging.

Between December 9 and December 21, we'll be counting down the 13 biggest stories on throughout 2013. From pig problems (see below), to Tesla's on fire, and being held captive in China, we'll be looking into just why these stories resonated with readers here and elsewhere. For the full list, updated daily at 1:00pm EST until the 21st, visit the Top 13 In 2013 page.

Throughout 2013, Tesla has taken, for its relatively small size, a massive chunk of the public eye. The company’s electric-powered vehicles have been reviewed as some of the best available in their categories, and with more charging stations popping up around the country, making that road trip on battery power is easier than ever. All in all, it was shaping up to be a flawless year for the company, which seems poised to soon announce another model at an even lower price. Investors were very happy, with the company’s stock price rising more than 400 percent since the beginning of the year.

On October 2, a video showing the front of a Tesla Model S engulfed in flames went “viral” and hit the airwaves of the 24-hour news channels. Speculation was abound, with many claiming that the fire was proof of the inherent dangers of housing so much electrical potential in such a small space. Add to that news throughout 2013 about the problems Boeing was having with its own lithium ion batteries, and it became the company’s first real faltering.

The next day, a company spokeswoman said the fire began after the vehicle accidentally struck metal debris in the road. The driver immediately began to exit the freeway, at which point the vehicle became disabled and shortly thereafter caught fire. The fire was contained to the front of the vehicle, in part due to shielding embedded around the passenger compartment, although it took firefighters some time to extinguish the flames.

Tesla insisted the fire was actually minimized because of the car’s safety-conscious design, and other experts agreed: Even if a battery pack can catch fire, they’re certainly less prone to do so than a tank full of gasoline. Again, the company also reiterated the fact that its cars scored remarkably well in front and side test crashes.

Elon Musk, the company’s CEO and public figurehead, weighed in: “The nationwide driving statistics make this very clear: there are 150,000 car fires per year according to the National Fire Protection Association, and Americans drive about 3 trillion miles per year according to the Department of Transportation. That equates to 1 vehicle fire for every 20 million miles driven, compared to 1 fire in over 100 million miles for Tesla. This means you are 5 times more likely to experience a fire in a conventional gasoline car than a Tesla!”

In late October, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said they would not open a formal investigation into the fire because there was no indication it was caused by a safety defect or signaled a violation of any federal regulation. Score one for the Tesla team.

But just a few days after that, another Tesla caught fire in Tennessee, under roughly the same conditions as the other. That driver ran over a tow hitch, which struck the car’s undercarriage, where the battery pack resides. It then caught on fire, as had the others. The county fire chief said it “pretty much just melted to the road,” but also acknowledge the passenger compartment was still in good shape after the flames were doused.

In the post, he says that Tesla’s goal has always been to bring affordable electric cars to market as soon as possible, and as safely as possible. He acknowledged that new technology does, and should, receive a certain higher degree of scrutiny from the public and governmental bodies, but argued this was surpassed in the aftermath of these fires. He walked through the statistical truth, which supported his assumptions that an electric car is fundamentally safer, when it comes to fire hazards.

Musk wrote, “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.”

First, the company rolled out an over-the-air software upgrade that would alter the suspension to provide greater ground clearance at highway speeds, reducing the chance of underbody impact damage. They also requested NHTSA open a full investigation to the fires to ensure there was nothing else that could be done to protect occupants — who have always come out unscathed — in the event of a battery fire. At that point, the NHTSA turned back on its original stance and opened an investigation into the series of debris strikes. There’s still a chance it could end in a recall, but the news, along with more wariness from investors, set off Musk, who penned a rather impassioned post defending the company’s cars.

Third, Musk said Tesla would cover, via warranty, any fire damage, even if due to driver error. “Unless a Model S owner actively tries to destroy the car, they are covered,” he wrote.

While the company certainly has received some bad press in the last few months of 2013, Musk’s vocal rebuttal has ease the worries of would-be buyers and investors alike. To many, that response has only served to certify just how safe the cars are, and how the company is willing to stand behind them. It’s inevitable that the company will find itself in more troubles in the future, but unlike many companies in the automotive world, Tesla seems poised to effectively deal with the bumps in the road, be they in the public eye or on an engineer’s computer screen.