Tesla Model S Gets Federal Safety Probe After Fires

On the heels of three incidents in which Tesla Model S cars have caught fire after striking road debris, the federal government has announced that it is investigating a potential vehicle safety defect involving the popular electric car — specifically, the effect of “undercarriage strikes” on the vehicle’s battery compartment.

Here’s what the NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation had to say in announcing the Tesla probe:

    The 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.
    Based on these incidents, NHTSA is opening this preliminary evaluation to examine the potential risks associated with undercarriage strikes on model year 2013 Tesla Model S vehicles.

According to the Washington Post, it’s not clear whether Tesla CEO Elon Musk asked the NHTSA to look into the issue — Musk claims he did, but the head of the agency said he was “not aware” of any such request.

In any case, Musk isn’t thrilled with the picture that the media is painting when it comes to the Model S and its propensity to catch fire, and he may have a fair point.

In a blog post on the Tesla website, Musk makes the argument that three incidents of fire involving the Model S does not add up to a safety problem, especially when you put that incident rate side-by-side with the one for gasoline-powered cars. Here is the numbers breakdown from Musk:

    There are now substantially more than the 19,000 Model S vehicles on the road, for an average of one fire per at least 6,333 cars, compared to the rate for gasoline vehicles of one fire per 1,350 cars. By this metric, you are more than four and a half times more likely to experience a fire in a gasoline car than a Model S! Considering the odds in the absolute, you are more likely to be struck by lightning in your lifetime than experience even a non-injurious fire in a Tesla.