Tesla Responds to Fires With Ground Clearance Software Update

By · November 19, 2013

Tesla Suspension Update

A Model S ran over a large metal object on a highway in Washington State in early October, causing the object to puncture the protective armored plate on the Model S underside.

How low can it go? That's the question Tesla owners are debating in online chat rooms after the latest software upgrade from Tesla, which alters the Smart Air Suspension feature at high speeds. The change is in response to three recent fires in Tesla Model S vehicles.

Tesla did not respond to a request from PluginCars.com for a detailed explanation of how the upgrade impacts the Air Suspension function. But Tesla founder Elon Musk did post a blog last night in which he said, “We have rolled out an over-the-air update to the air suspension that will result in greater ground clearance at highway speeds. To be clear, this about reducing the chances of an underbody impact damage, not improving safety.”

Smart Air Suspension, a $2,250 option on the Model S, automatically lowers and levels the vehicle at highway speeds for “optimum aerodynamics,” according to the Tesla Motors website.

The first fire involved a Model S running over a large metal object on a highway in Washington State in early October. The object punctured the protective armored plate on the Model S underside. The vehicle notified the driver of a problem and after he had pulled over a fire erupted in the front battery module.

The second, in Mexico, involved a driver of a Model S crashing at high speed through a wall and into a tree. The subsequent battery fire damaged the front of the vehicle—at least that what it looks like in the photos—but the driver (who had been drinking, according to Mexican press reports) walked away unhurt.

The third fire, in early November in Tennessee, occurred after running over a trailer hitch, said the car’s driver. Again, the car notified him of a problem and he pulled over before the battery ignited.

Tesla founder Elon Musk defended the Model S after the first fire in an online posting in which he said, in part, “It is important to note that the fire in the battery was contained to a small section near the front by the internal firewalls built into the pack structure. At no point did fire enter the passenger compartment.” He has said there will be no recall of the Model S.

Of course, it is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that will determine if a recall is needed. It investigated the first accident and found no evidence the fire “was the result of a vehicle safety defect or non-compliance with federal safety standards.” After the third incident, however, the NHTSA launched an official investigation into the Model S.

While Model S owners have staunchly supported their vehicle—the owner of the Tennessee Model S even posted on Tesla’s website declaring he would gladly buy another Model S “in a heartbeat”—Tesla’s stock price has taken a hit. It has fallen nearly 22 percent since early October.

Tesla owners want choice in disablement

The announced changes to the air suspension function have Tesla owners talking online. A comment by ditch in the owner’s forum in the Tesla Motors Club online forum was representative. Disabling the air suspension function “should be an option/checkbox/slider switch,” wrote ditch. “I would still like it to auto lower at highway speeds unless I manually lock it out.”

Owners also speculated that eliminating the feature would make the vehicle less efficient. “Lets see if the Wh/mile numbers worsen slightly,” wrote gg_got_a_tesla.

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