How The Media Responded to Tesla Model S Fire

By · October 04, 2013

Close-up of Tesla Model S Fire

By this time, you have surely heard that a Tesla Model S luxury electric sedan caught fire in Kent, Wash., after running over a large metallic object. That’s because the story was deemed a big news event by major media, as well as many niche websites and blogs. Google News lists 580 news sources (and counting) about the occurrence. The rush to cover the fire—mostly made known by a viral YouTube video—presented a challenge to reporters: few facts are known about the cause of the blaze.

How each media outlet slices and dices those few facts, and who they interview for analysis, reveals as much about the news organization doing the reporting as it does about the news event itself. Think of it as a Rorschach test regarding attitudes about electric cars in general, and Tesla Motors in particular. The stories can also measured on a fear-meter, from The New York Times suggesting that the fire could be “a stake in the heart of electric vehicles,” to Forbes describing it as a “small bump on the road for Tesla and investors.”

Here’s an unscientific survey of the most telling coverage.

The New York Times: “Car Fire a Test for High-Flying Tesla

“This is why you can’t just take cellphone batteries and string them together under the hood,” said Donald R. Sadoway, a professor of materials chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Cars are subject to different uses and abuses.”

“It’s a relatively innocuous occurrence to hit something in the road,” Mr. [Karl] Brauer [of Kelly Blue Book] said. “But in this case there’s a fire, and a fire that’s difficult to put out.”

“You have to respond openly and honestly with the public, and work through this with N.H.T.S.A.,” said Jason Vines, an industry consultant who was head of communications at the Ford Motor Company when its Explorer S.U.V.’s equipped with Firestone tires became prone to disastrous rollovers. “This could be another stake in the heart of electric vehicles,” he said. “It is inevitable that some people are going to say they are just not ready to go on the road.”

ABC News: “How Does The Tesla Model S Ace Safety Tests, But Catch on Fire?

“The Model S's steel plate keeps its battery protected during everyday driving. But it also made the fire department's job trickier, said [Kyle Ohashi, a captain with the Kent Fire Department]. "Typically when you have a car fire, it's relatively easy to access the battery," he said. "This battery was buried deeply in the front portion of the car, so gaining access to the fire was an issue.”

“Tesla's battery differs from other electric and hybrid cars, Jeff Chamberlain [deputy director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Lab in Illinois] noted, and its design actually lowers the risk of fire propagating. "The Chevy Volt has 288 battery cells that are about the size of your hand," he said. "The Model S uses a different set of cells and has between 8,000 to 11,000 of them. When you divide those cells up the way Tesla did, the [risk] of fire spreading goes down."

MIT Technology Review: “What the Tesla Battery Fire Means for Electric Vehicles

“Vehicle fires are very common. One battery researcher, Jeff Dahn of Dalhousie University, pointed out to me this afternoon that there were 187,000 vehicle fires in the United Statesin 2011. That’s one fire for every 1,738 cars on the road. With Tesla this fire makes one out of almost 20,000. “That’s 10X less frequent,” he told me in an email, typing in all caps.”

Daily Finance / The Motley Fool: “Tesla Under Fire: A Broader Look

“To those who could not believe that a start-up automaker could make an electric car, the Model S fire served up a perfect dish of Tesla failure. However, the situation involving the Model S is far from the typical EV fear scenario.”

“Tesla shares are now down around 10% from before the analyst downgrade and fire were reported. But based on the events surrounding this incident and comparisons to other existing vehicles, I view the safety fears involving the Model S to be greatly overblown.”

Wired Magazine: “Please Calm the Hell Down About the Tesla Model S Fire

“The fact is that on-board energy storage is dangerous. The same fire could have happened to another EV, a traditional internal combustion engine, a hydrogen fuel cell, a compressed air-powered vehicle, or any other fuel that can propel a two-ton hunk of metal, plastic, and rubber down the road at freeway speeds.”

“The bottom line is simple: energy storage—in all its forms—is problematic. And this is just the latest incident that proves it.”

Forbes: “Yes, Teslas Can Catch Fire But Keeping Cool Is In Order

“From what’s known so far, this appears to be a case of a spectacular incident being used as an excuse to sell off a stock that has had a spectacular run. EV detractors might attempt to make it an excuse for bashing the underlying technology, but there are tens of thousands of Volts and Nissan Leafs also on the road. So far those, too, have proved to safe in their fair share of collisions. Unless there is some revelation about a thus-far unseen defect in the Model S, this will likely be a small bump on the road for Tesla and investors. One would hope owners of the cars encounter similarly smooth roads ahead to avoid incidents like the one in Kent.”

Comments

· · 28 weeks ago

Let's hope the stock recovers and it doesn't phase the EV market

· · 28 weeks ago

What's with the NYT, a supposedly progressive newspaper? This isn't the first time they've posted a hatchet job article about the model S. The fact that the car actually told the driver there was a problem and to pull over seems to have been conveniently overlooked. I'll bet folks would pay extra for their ICE car to do that!

· · 28 weeks ago

The Model S was just protesting the war.

· · 28 weeks ago

My hope is the media is so bad that they cut prices in half just to get rid of them, that when I will have one. Lol

· · 28 weeks ago

Tesla Motors has posted a response to the incident on their blog:

Model S Fire

· · 28 weeks ago

Brian beat me to it. Elon Musk makes a strong case in the blog post. Something like 138,000 gasoline cars have burned recently, and virtually none of them made the national news.

· · 28 weeks ago

“You have to respond openly and honestly with the public, and work through this with N.H.T.S.A.”

Yeah, well someone ought to tell Jason Vines that the N.H.T.S.A. is currently shut down, thanks to Tea Party goofballs in the House who also would like to see EVs go away.

· · 28 weeks ago

@ricosoma wrote:>>>>>>>What's with the NYT, a supposedly progressive newspaper?<<<<<<<<

I should think it obvious - they're still smarting from the blowback on Broder's incompetent hatchet job and their editorial cowardice in trying to cover for him. I have no doubt they will take every opportunity to hurt and/or embarrass the techie upstart who dared to expose The Gray Lady's dirty laundry.

When it comes to Tesla, the NYT has disqualified itself as a credible source.

· · 27 weeks ago

I was out of the country when I got an explanatory letter "from" Elon Musk regarding Mr. Carson's S fire. It was clear to me that the damage would be isolated from the you tube footage.A bit of Visual Literacy is called for. Must have been a slow new week,but reading all press stories is entertaining.

· · 27 weeks ago

@NeilBlanchard,
“Elon Musk makes a strong case in the blog post” only if you don’t break down the numbers. Here are the statistics that I understand.

Approximately 6 million accidents per year
Approximately 185,000 car fires per year (I have seen numbers quoted from around 140K to 185K so I will use the higher number)
About 3 trillion miles driven per year
100 million miles driven by Teslas so far
250 million cars (in US)
< 1% car accidents result in fires (according to NHTSA)
<0.1% of car accidents involve fires and injuries/deaths

So what did EM do? He took 1 fire/100 million miles and got 1 fire per 100 million miles driven by Teslas. Compare that to 185,000 fires/3 trillion miles and got 1 fire/17 million miles, approximately 5 times more frequent.

So what is wrong with this? 185K car fires per 6 million is closer to 3 percent of the accidents resulting in fires, not < 1% per NHTSA. Why is this? Because the 185K fires includes all fires, not just fires from accidents. According to U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Protection Association, about 35,000 of these fires are caused by arson. Of the remaining, about 75% are due to mechanical failures. These are the recalls that you always hear about like the short in the Ford ignition switch from the 80s/90s. I am not suggesting that we ignore these completely but these tend to be issues for older cars and this affect has not hit Tesla yet (hopefully it won’t). The rest is fires from accidents/vehicle damage which is probably in the 40,000/year range (25% of 185,000-35,000), conveniently falling to just under 1% as reported by NHTSA.

So if we use the 40,000 fires due to vehicle damage number instead of 185,000, you get 1 fire/75 million miles driven, statistically equal to the Tesla.

Let’s look at this another way though. To my knowledge, there have been 12 accidents so far involving Teslas (I forget where I read this) and one fire. This means that 8% of accidents from Teslas involve a fire, 8 times higher than the industry average of <1%.

Is the Model S more likely to have a fire? Depends on the way you twist the statistics. EM is just using the numbers that makes his story sound better and nobody is questioning him.

· · 27 weeks ago

@regman,

Thanks for breaking down the numbers. The bottom line is, there are (relatively speaking) so few Teslas on the road, and so few accidents involving them that any kind of statics derived is completely irrelevant. When we have more of them on the road, the truth will shake out.

· · 27 weeks ago

@regman: You make a good point about the statistics involved. But I do think Musk's point is valid in general: for any given sample of ICEs driven 100 million miles (the number of miles driven by Teslas) a single car fire incident would be unremarkable and may - MAY - actually be lower than expected.

Now, are EVs actually safer than ICEs in terms of car fires? You're right - we can't really know unless we examine the statistics in more detail - perhaps more detail than NHTSA has.

I assume that your comment about 8% of Tesla accidents involving a fire is just put in there to give an example of how to bend statistics. As I'm sure you know, if you are dealing with a single incident you can't validly use that to claim what percentage of time that incident is likely to occur - the sample size is too small.

· · 27 weeks ago

@• RedLeaf,
Yes, the 8% example was put in to show how statistics can be manipulated and makes the point that there aren’t near enough vehicles on the road or miles driven to make any statistical comparisons to the entire automotive industry.

The one that bothers me more is the claim that "Had a conventional gasoline car encountered the same object on the highway, the result could have been far worse". Although this statement is true (because he used the word “could”), guess what, it also COULD HAVE BEEN BETTER. The vehicle could have not burned beyond repair (i.e. totaled). The only scenario that would have been worse is if there was an injury or fatality but with this type of an accident/vehicle damage, the driver statistically would have escaped without injury. Auto accidents that involve fires and injuries usually involved trapped occupants, which wasn’t the case here. This comment and subsequent comments regarding puncturing fuel tanks also imply that a punctured fuel tank ALWAYS catches on fire. This is not the case and I would argue that it is rarely the case in an incident where damage from road debris punctures the fuel tank or fuel line. I personally know of 3 people plus myself that have had this happen and none have resulted in fires. Remember, you need 2 things to occur for this type of fire to happen; one fuel tank and two a source of heat. In the case of a gas car, the first doesn’t necessarily cascade to the second where, as in this case, a puncture (and damage to the electrical system in the battery) did cascade to the second. Statements like this by EM are purely speculative and would not be allowed in a court of law and shouldn't be allowed to give Tesla a free pass.

Is the Tesla a safer car, I say yes and no. The design of the battery, at least in this case, contained the fire away from the passenger compartment which may not necessarily be the case for a gas vehicle where fuel is spilled and it caught on fire. But is this vehicle more likely to result in a fire due to an impact? At best, there is too little data to make that conclusion but to me, it is a definite possibility.

· · 27 weeks ago

"Statements like this by EM are purely speculative and would not be allowed in a court of law and shouldn't be allowed to give Tesla a free pass."

Name a single CEO that wouldn't do exactly the same thing. I'll wait.

· · 27 weeks ago

@TheBraveLittleToaster
Name one that has.

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