Tesla Model S Blaze in Nashville Makes Three Fires in Six Weeks

By · November 07, 2013

Tesla Model S car fire south of Nashville. Source: Twitter user NASHVILLIAN

A Tesla Model S caught fire yesterday south of Nashville, Tenn., making a string of three Model S car fires in a little over a month. Like the other two incidents, nobody was injured, reinforcing claims that the Model S is safe. Few details are known other than pictures found on Twitter and Instagram, and an initial statement from Tesla Motors.

The incident occurred on I-24 south of Nashville, Tenn., at about 1:30 p.m. local time. Photographs posted online show the Model S pulled over to the median strip, with a fire smoldering in the front trunk area. Two people are seen walking in the median, one wearing what looks like surgical scrubs. The car had no apparent damage, other than what was caused by the fire. It appears the fire did not reach the passenger compartment.

Tesla provided this official statement: "We have been in contact with the driver, 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. We will provide more information when we’re able to do so."

The conditions of this blaze make it similar to the first Model S car fire, in Kent, Wash. on Oct. 1. In that event, the fire occurred when that car was driven over metallic road debris, puncturing the battery pack, causing a short circuit, leading to a fire in the battery pack. The car detected a problem, instructing the driver to pull off the road after which the car caught on fire.

Tesla Model S Tennessee Fire

A photograph of the latest Model S fire, posted by an Instagram user.

In gasoline powered cars, this type of accident, called "Fuel Tank Fire," is common. After the Kent, Wash. fire, Tesla claimed their battery pack is safer than gasoline fuel tanks. It is protected by a quarter-inch aluminum plate, and divided into 16 modules with fire-resistant barriers between each one. If a fire occurs, the battery pack is designed to channel the fire toward the front of the car. In both incidents, in Washington and Tennessee, the fire was contained in the front of the car.

The second Model S car fire occurred outside Merida, Mexico on the Yucatan Peninsula. In that case, the vehicle was traveling at 100 miles per hour before the accident. During Tesla's conference call on Tuesday to discuss quarterly results with analysts, CEO Elon Musk said "The car actually sheared something like 17 feet of concrete wall, then went through a concrete wall, then smashed into a tree." The passengers, who survived what could have been a fatal accident in a less safe car, were able to flee the scene.

Proper Context

More than 150,000 gasoline car fires occur in the U.S. every year. That's about 17 car fires per hour, every day. This results in hundreds of deaths and injuries a year, and accounts for 10 percent of all fires in the US, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

A month ago, citing statistics like this, Elon Musk claimed that Model S fires occur at one-fifth the rate of gasoline car fires. The 150,000 gasoline car fires, divided into three trillion miles driven per year, equates to one fire per 20 million miles driven. With 100 million miles of Model S driving, and one Model S car fire at the time, the risk was pegged at one-fifth of that posed by gas-powered cars. Three fires skews the risk ratio in a negative direction for Tesla.

On Wednesday, Tesla's stock price fell by 25 points (14.51% loss), before news of this Model S car fire fully hit the social media. The initial report came via a picture posted by a Twitter user going by the name NASHVILLIAN. At about the same time pictures were posted by DavanH, an Instagram user.

Comments

· · 36 weeks ago

3 burning Teslas does not make a robust statistics by any account. It is affected too much by chance rather than revealing the true distribution of risks for EVs versus gasoline vehicles. In a few years we could have about 1000 EV fires on the book and that will be enough to make a far more meaningful and accurate safety statistic for EVs versus gasoline cars.

I also expect other factors than the type of propulsion are important when looking at accident statistics. The Tesla model S is a very fast car that invites to be driven more aggressively than a Prius for example. My point is the accident statistics for Model S should be compared with similar fast cars that are gasoline. That would make more sense.

· · 36 weeks ago

@ Henrik2,
It is great to say that there isn’t enough data to draw a statistical conclusion however Elon already opened this can of worms after the first fire by spouting out a bunch of bad statistics to attempt to support the claim that the Model S is more safe. If he is going to claim 1 fire in 100 Million miles is better than the industry of 1/20 Million (150,000 fires/3 Trillion miles) then he now has to accept the fact that Teslas are now closer to 1/40 Million, statistically equal to the industry average based on the limited vehicles on the road.

The biggest problem, however, with this analysis is that the true industry average is closer to 1/60 million miles because the number of fires from accidents is closer to 40,000-50,000 per year and may be lower for new model vehicles. The rest of the fires are due to component failure (mostly electrical) that occur while not driving. These are the safety recalls like the Ford ignition switch that you hear about and Tesla will eventually have their share of these issues because they use a lot of the same suppliers as other auto companies.

The other thing that everyone is confusing is the difference between severity (related to how safe a car is) and occurrence. I am 100% convinced that the Tesla is one of the safest vehicles on the road (safe refers to the severity of injury in an accident) but I have a growing concern that the occurrence of a fire or even the occurrence of an accident may be higher in a Tesla . Note that I said a Tesla and not a BEV because the Tesla has designed their batteries to have a large exposure area to damage. Any breach in the battery has a significantly higher chance of causing a short and subsequently a fire. This is a design tradeoff between package (battery swapping capability) and exposure to damage. It also has the added benefit of lowering the CG which greatly improves handling and lowers the occurrence of accidents due to loss of control making it more safe.

Depending on what comes out in the details of this third fire, I wouldn’t be surprised if NHTSA starts an investigation.

· · 36 weeks ago

the way I see it, Hitting road debris or hitting a concrete wall at 100 MPH, isn't a notable
incident leading to a fire.

Now having a pack fire with no known "Provocation" that's a different deal.

Fortunately there is no injury, so the loss is one Model S and I'm sure Tesla Engineers will
be air freighting the vehcile to SoCal and putting it under the microscope.

Perhaps the vehicle had prior road debris strike, perhaps it had been driven roughly by a parking valet,
perhaps some manufacturing error or design error.

I'm sure the Tesla people will address this and produce a decent report.

· · 36 weeks ago

Mentioning 'the car is safe because nobody got injured' is getting pretty damn lame to read - one would expect that when no other cars are involved!

Something's wrong with the Model S for these fires to be happening one after the other. Fix it before things get out of hand.

BTW, if people want to use statistics to justify dismissing concern over the Model S design, should Ford have been given a break on its Pinto, since out of 3 million Pintos only 30 people died in rear-impact fires, a fatality rate lower than comparable sized imported cars (WIkipdia).

· · 36 weeks ago

If the reports of this fire being caused by the car running over a broken trailer hitch than it is very similar to what happened in the first fire. The second fire was the result of a very high speed accident where the car hit a concrete barrier so it's hard to fault the car in that one. However this one, along with the first one may indicate the aluminum shield underneath the car may be insufficient.

If that is the case I would imagine it wouldn't be very difficult to replace the shield with one made of steel that would provide better protection as it would be tougher to penetrate. Yes, it would add weight - probably an extra 100 -150lbs, but if it prevents these type of incidents, then the slight loss of efficiency and range is well worth it.

· · 36 weeks ago

The thing about severity is that although thankfully no one suffered severe injuries the three cars are a total loss. Insurance companies are not going to take this lightly.

· · 36 weeks ago

I would imagine if it is determined that the Model S needs better battery shielding, it would be in the form of a Kevlar/ carbon fiber sandwich like are used in airplanes, or a thicker aluminum plate. Maybe the next aftermarket opportunity?

· · 36 weeks ago

Notice in this case the "road debris" was the severed foundation of a power pole hat the driver ran over. Amazing how this is the first of four articles I've read that actually mention the cause of the accident! Media frenzy, or poor journalism, or a conspiracy to get headline clicks - sensationalism lives!

· · 36 weeks ago

Update > The woman was charged with a driving under the influence.

Good grief. Do not drive your Model S under the influence, people!

· · 36 weeks ago

It's not about dismissing any issue with the Model S. It's about asking, why isn't there as much attention to gasoline car fires as this? These electric car fires are getting attention out of proportion to the attention given to gasoline car fires.

· · 36 weeks ago

@ David - Your "Update" is unrelated to this event. The "Update" you added in is actually tied into an August 15 accident involving a Model S. This is an entirely different event involving no power pole and no DUI that we know of.

See link: http://wgnsradio.com/one-car-crash-downs-utility-pole-and-closes-thompso...

· · 36 weeks ago

@Eric - Thanks for your note. Adding the update, clearly a mistake, was all me. Strange that the events happened so near to another--and so close to where Nissan makes the LEAF. (I'm not suggesting a connection.) Anyhow, we pulled the update. Sorry for the confusion.

· · 36 weeks ago

David I think these fires get all that attention in large part because they are so rare. When we get to the point where there is one or more Tesla fires every day it will no longer be interesting to report.

· · 36 weeks ago

@Henrik2, for what you call 'rare', I'd say three similar battery fires in five weeks exceeds what I would call 'rare'. As to your last sentence, I am afraid there will be no more Tesla before these fires become an everyday occurrence.

I hope somebody comes up with a fix. Tesla needs to survive this, in other words, they need to put this behind them ASAP.

· · 36 weeks ago

@Regman:
"Elon already opened this can of worms after the first fire by spouting out a bunch of bad statistics"

Sorry, but if you're going to counter his "bad statistics" with more bad statistics, you're the pot calling the kettle black. Three data points aren't good statistics, even if they do happen to happen within a few weeks of each other.

I want to know how many Camaros have been in accidents and caught fire in the past 6 weeks (or better, the past 52 weeks), however. Does anyone have statistics on *that*? Oh wait, accidents like this where the car catches on fire after an accident are so common noone even cares anymore.

I once watched a collision where a drunk driver blew through a red light and T-boned an SUV, then subsequently caught on fire under the hood. It was a non-issue because the fire wasn't large and it didn't spread to the cabin. It did look scary to all the bystanders - several of whom wrongly pulled the driver from the car - but otherwise the safety features preventing a more disastrous fire (presumably an automatic fuel pump shutoff) worked.

You know, just like what happened here.

· · 36 weeks ago

@Tom

I don't think a more robust battery shield is a bad idea, but it misses the whole point. How can Tesla redesign their battery to mitigate short circuits and control thermal runaway?

Elon has smugly bragged about how Tesla's battery technology is superior to competitors in fire and thermal management. This hasn't turned out to be the case at all, since we don't see a bunch Volts and LEAFs going up in flames. Maybe, the little safety cap they remove from their cells was necessary after all. Maybe, they need a better battery controller that can disconnect shorted cells. Maybe, they need more of the retardant between cells.

One thing is for sure, Tesla customers and shareholders are going to want a real solution and not just a lame statistic comparing it to ICE fires.

· · 36 weeks ago

Bret: Perhaps you are right. I can tell you this from first hand experience, and that is whatever BMW is doing works. I don't know if you know but three months ago I totaled my BMW ActiveE. I was involved in a three car accident and the end result was me being forced into the back of a dump truck that was traveling about 20mph up a long steep hill. I was going about 65mph on impact so it was like hitting a brick wall at 45mph. Since the dump truck is so much higher than a 1 series BMW, I basically went under the truck and the 8" thick tow hook on the dump truck crumpled my hood and drove a hole through the large battery pack in the front of my car. The battery took nearly all of the force of the impact as the tow hook crushed its way through it and into the steel frame reinforcement behind the battery. No fire, no smoldering, nothing and the battery was more badly crushed than either of the cases where the metal object (road debris) punctured the Model S batteries and caused the fires. Here is a picture of my car. Note the hole in the battery block under the hood. That goes all the way through!
http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-i0pLe-unfKE/UhUShZHhqbI/AAAAAAAADFo/8fld-E4dRk...

· · 36 weeks ago

@Tom,

So sorry to hear about your accident! I'm glad BMW protected their battery, but how did you fare? Did you sustain any serious injuries? (I assume you had at least minor injuries with a 45mph speed delta).

· · 36 weeks ago

Oil companies are clearly making their move. Only a retard would believe that gasoline is safer than battery.

· · 36 weeks ago

I was banged up considerably Brian. I have a compression fracture and three herniated discs but I'm on the mend, thanks for asking. That was in early August. BMW supplied me with a new ActiveE once I was driving again so I'm still driving electric.

· · 36 weeks ago

@David, I don't think there is anything wrong with being concerned about this. 3 Tesla fires with so few cars on the road is something to be concerned about. Nissan has more Leafs on the road and GM has more Volts on the road but neither of them are having fires with their vehicles despite many accidents with them.

· · 36 weeks ago

@Tom

Wow, that is a bad looking accident. I didn't realize you had totaled the Active E. I'm glad BMW got you a replacement, while you are waiting for your i3. I also hope you heal up quickly.

This directly supports my previous post. People don't expect an EV to burst into flames after a crash or after running over some road debris. I love Tesla, but this is an unacceptable failure and bad for the image of EVs. They have to address this problem ASAP, with a solution that completely eliminates these fires.

· · 36 weeks ago

@TheBraveLittleToaster,
“Sorry, but if you're going to counter his "bad statistics" with more bad statistics”
I agree with you completely. Three data points isn’t enough to get good statistics but Elon seemed to think one was so, my point is that if he wants to start spouting out statistics when he thinks it is to his advantage, he has to accept it when these statistics are not to his advantage. I am really curious how he is going to spin this one.

“Does anyone have statistics on [how many Camaros caught on fire]?” Yes. NHTSA. And when they see a pattern appearing, they investigate. If the Camaros have a high incident of fires, or roll overs, or deaths, etc., they will investigate. Questioning the safety of other cars is not an excuse.

And by the way, car fires are relatively uncommon. They occur in less than 1% of all accidents or about 45,000 of 6,000,000 accidents every year and less than 0.1% of all accidents have both a fire and a death. As far as I know, there have been about 20 accidents with Teslas with 3 fires now.

I am not questioning the safety of the car based on the driver’s protection in an accident, I am questions the occurrence of a minor accident escalating into something that worse, after the driver has time to get out of the car. BTW, if the Tesla is sensitive to fires from battery damage, it is just a matter of time before one gets into an accident where the driver gets trapped in the car and can’t get out.

@Tom,
Really sorry to hear about your accident. This is a testament to how safe all care have become. Based on the picture, an accident like that 20 years ago would have been significantly worse. Glad you got a replacement so fast and now your recovery is speedy.

· · 36 weeks ago

The statistics may be easier to understand if the 300 million vehicles in the US is simply divided by the 0.15 million vehicle fires per year in the USA.

Then you get one vehicle fire every year for every 2000 vehicles out there.

With 20,000 Teslas on the road you should expect 10 fires this year give or take.

For one Tesla fire to happen every day you need about 720,000 Teslas on the read. Tesla plan/hope to make 200,000 EV per year by 2017.

· · 36 weeks ago

@Tom,

It sounds like you're probably pretty uncomfortable, but I'm glad you're recovering. I'm also glad it wasn't any worse.

This is a testament to the effort BMW put into converting the car, despite sprinkling the battery cells around in multiple locations. If a hobbyist had done the job, less effort would likely have been spent on keeping it safe.

· · 36 weeks ago

@Henrik2,
You are making 2 mistakes in your assessment.
First, there are not 150,000 fires every year from accidents. That is the number of total vehicle fires. This is the wrong number to use in this case. According to NHTSA and USFA/FEMA, only 30% of all vehicle fires are due to accidents (labeled as “Unintentional” in their reports). That puts the number around 50k (I read this number to be 40-45k somewhere but can’t find it anymore). The bulk of vehicle fires comes from “Failure of Equipment or Heat Source” (23%), “Intentional” (7%), “Undetermined after Investigation” or “Cause under investigation” (23% and 10%). Undetermined or Under Investigation are probably Failure of Equipment or Intentional because the National Fire Incident Reporting System no longer collects information on suspicious fires that may have been intentionally set. They for sure weren’t due to an accident since they would have binned them under “Unintentional”. The bottom line, only 50k fires at most occur due to accidents and this is the number, not 150k, that should be used when comparing Tesla fires due to “accidents”.
The second mistake you make is comparing 300 million cars on the road that have an average age of 10-12 years with a fleet of vehicles that are less than 1 year old. Newer vehicles will have a lower rate of fires, primarily because vehicle quality and safety has gotten so much better. In a 10 year period between 98 and 2008, the number of vehicle fires dropped by over half from around 380k in 1998.

· · 36 weeks ago

There are 2.3 fatalities per 1000 vehicle fires (by all causes- not just fires caused by accidents). That means if there are 150K fires there are about 330 fatalities annually from vehicle fires.

http://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/statistics/v13i11.pdf

· · 36 weeks ago

According to some other news articles this fire seems to have been triggered by running over a tow hitch on the interstate.

The Tesla does seem to have a vulnerability to road debris. As Spec pointed out in another comment here, there are many more LEAF's and Volts running around on the roads and road debris is not causing fires for them. Unless the Tesla's have been hitting more debris due to pure bad luck, one would have expected more incidents of damage due to debris for the LEAF and Volt.

The Tesla's battery is slung very low, and they clearly thought of the danger by placing a 1/4 inch plate to protect it, which unfortunately doesn't seem to be protecting the battery adequately. It may need reinforcement in locations where debris will do the most damage. I'd be interested to know if the two debris fires were started in one of the front battery modules. It could be an additional plate at the front may reduce the likelihood of penetrations.

· · 36 weeks ago

Does anyone have pictures of the Tesla S battery protection plate? Could it be improved? As JP surmises, it sounds as if debris might be hitting the pack from the front, where the current generation protection plate might not be covering. If that wasn't the case and the 1/4" aluminum plate was breached, perhaps a carbon fiber shield (or a composite metal/carbon design) might be the solution.

What it doesn't sound like is a fundamental defect in the electronics of Tesla's battery pack system. Any current generation production lithium ion cell is going to experience thermal runaway if punctured. It's been suggested that measures could be put in place to suppress one compromised cell from igniting all the others. It sounds as if Tesla has done a very good job of that already, with the implementation of dividing up the pack into 16 modules. That the fire was directed forward of the cockpit and the driver was given ample early warning for emergency egress in both of these road debris incidents, all as designed, is noteworthy. But it might be impossible to prevent a single compromised punctured/burning cell from affecting the adjacent ones within a module.

When we finally see solid electrolyte lithium batteries, much of the volatility associated with puncturing current generation liquid electrolyte cells will be (presumably) a thing of the past.

Until then . . .

PS: glad to hear you survived your road incident, Tom, without more serious injury and are now in recovery mode.

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