After Three Car Fires, Tesla Has Some Fix Options

By · November 11, 2013

Aftermath: the third Tesla fire

Aftermath: the remains of the third Model S fire, this time in Tennessee.

Three fires—in Washington, Tennessee and Mexico—a federal investigation, a 26 percent stock drop, and really nervous-making online photos and videos of blazing cars. I’m wondering: Were those cars—all of which protected their occupants from injury—using the optimal settings of the car's “smart” air suspension that might have prevented the fires??

That feature allows the Model S lowers itself (from six to five inches of ride height) on the highway for better aerodynamics and range. “Use the touchscreen to raise or lower Model S when traversing thick snow or pulling into steep driveways,” Tesla says. That means the driver has a certain level of control over how high the car rides, and it could be a factor in the EV’s susceptibility to hitting foreign objects in the road—as happened in the two U.S. accidents.

A Download Away?

At least in the case of air-suspension cars, Tesla presumably has the technical ability to send out a software download that would stop them from hunkering down on the highway—a negligible benefit anyway. If necessary, all the cars could ride higher—at some cost to appearance and aerodynamics.

Factors like this become important as Tesla ponders what to do next. Because doing nothing and hoping for it all to blow over would not seem to be a good option, nor is it Tesla’s style. And some fairly persuasive voices are calling for quick action. According to Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, “Road debris is a known hazard to the undercarriage of vehicles.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigated the first fire and found no evidence that it “was the result of a vehicle safety defect or non-compliance with federal safety standards.” The second one was outside the U.S., and thus out of the agency’s jurisdiction. But it’s begun a preliminary inquiry into the third incident.

Lots of Cars Catch Fire

Yes, cars catch fire in the U.S. 17 times an hour. And there were an average of more than 152,000 of such blazes annually between 2006 and 2010, says the National Fire Protection Association. Yes, all three of the cars’ owners had now said they’d buy another one, and all three praised the way the safety systems protected the passenger compartment—the cars did what they were supposed to do, as Elon Musk pointed out. That’s great, and important, but it doesn’t erase those jerky, hand-held videos of burning cars now posted everywhere on the Internet. And it’s only Tesla car fires that make national news.

Aside from adjusting ride height, Tesla would appear to have the option of installing further armor plating underneath the car. Tesla undoubtedly doesn’t want to do this—it would make the car heavier, reducing range, and paradoxically it would also make the car ride lower. And that’s not a software download, but a much more involved physical installation that could challenge Tesla's service network.

An Outlier Event?

After the first fire, Donald Sadoway, a battery expert at MIT, described it as “an outlier event.” He said that “the chances of running over something that actually punctures the underbelly of a car are small.” True, but then it happened again with the third fire. Although these events happening in close proximity may be a fluke, the odds of it happening again increase with the number of Model S cars on the road.

Maybe the fires will soon be in Tesla’s rear-view mirror. EV advocates (and investors) betting on this company certainly hope so. Tesla’s stock was overvalued anyway, so a corrective dip isn’t a big deal. Still, I’m thinking that some kind of proactive fix by Tesla, either in conjunction with federal investigators or ahead of them, would be a prudent move.

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