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By Russ Finley on Oct 31, 2013 with 8 responses

Some Thoughts on the Second Tesla Model S Fire

Like the Hummer once was, the Tesla is a status symbol (but for a different crowd). Considering its outrageous price tag, one would be hard-pressed to argue that it is a practical car for the masses. But that’s OK with me, because the Tesla is an ambassador for all electric cars through a process called “status by association” (which is what name dropping is all about). We are social primates… like it or not, status seeking is built into our genes.

On the flip side, it could harm the image of electric cars if this latest trend of catching on fire continues, or accelerates. I’ve looked into the statistics and have concluded that, to date, a significantly smaller percentage of Tesla’s catch on fire than conventional cars. Although, that could change with time. Two spectacular fires in almost as many weeks is not a good thing. A lithium fire with exploding batteries is something to behold and makes good copy. It’s also dangerous if the driver should be incapacitated. To date, no Nissan Leaf has caught fire. 35,000 Leafs have been sold in the U.S. compared to 15,000 Tesla Model S sedans. But that might change as well.

I’m also not convinced that Elon Musk is helping matters much with his personal appearances. In this video he tells the interviewer that the batteries are protected by a quarter inch armor plate. Yet it still caught on fire. According to the numbers I ran, an armor plate that thick, large enough to cover the Model S battery, would weigh somewhere between 300 and 400 lbs (the equivalent of always carrying around three passengers). Assuming this “armor plate” really is that thick, the Tesla engineers were obviously quite concerned about their choice of battery chemistry and location under the car.

He claimed that only “a few” of the modules in the battery pack burned. If a fire that spectacular resulted from just a few of the 16 modules burning, just try to imagine what it would have looked like with all of them burning.

He appeared to be stifling a smile when discussing Boeing’s battery concerns. I can just imagine some Boeing execs toasting the fact that his second Model S just flamed on.

He said that if a gasoline powered car had hit the same road debris, it would have resulted in a conflagration that would have burned the car to the ground. Those Tesla fires certainly qualified as conflagrations and had the fire department not arrived on time, almost certainly, both would have burned to the ground.

Before his personal appearance, Tesla published a letter giving their version of what happened. It claimed that the fire was contained to the front section of the car by internal firewalls within the pack, insinuating that an incapacitated driver would have survived. The fact that the guy filming the first fire could feel the heat in the cab of his truck from 100 feet away suggests otherwise. I strongly suspect that had the fire department arrived a few minutes later, the fire would have been in the passenger compartment. Clearly, the film of the second fire shows the flames engulfing the passenger section.  It said that “Vents built into the battery pack directed the flames down towards the road and away from the vehicle.” Apparently to little effect, I might add.

The note went on to blame the firemen for puncturing the firewall in an attempt to put the fire out which allowed the flames to vent upwards into the front trunk section, which is contradicted by what we see in the second video with the fire consuming half of the car.

It claims that the combustion potential of the Model S is only about 1% that of a gas tank, which, true or not, is utterly irrelevant when looking at those spectacular lithium fires. Energy released per unit time is what matters. Release enough energy in a short enough period of time and you have the definition of an explosion.

I’m not concerned that a Tesla will occasionally catch on fire after being damaged. I’m more concerned that their clumsy attempts to sugarcoat the accidents may turn against them.

  1. By QKodiak on October 31, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    Why does nobody seem to think the Mercedes S-class, BMW 7-series, Jaguar XJ, or Lexus LS have “outrageous” price tags? Yet for some reason the Tesla Model S which is the first great electric car is considered overpriced. I sense a lot of negative bias.

    Those lithium fires were not spectacular. They didn’t spread or consume the entire vehicle unlike the fuel in an ICE vehicle. Also, no one has been seriously injured in a Model S. It has done its job time and again, even in some pretty horrific crashes. In every case, the driver and passengers walked away from it. That’s the mark of a safe car. What happens to the car is pretty much irrelevant so long as the occupants remain safe.

    Is there any car that wouldn’t have caught fire after a crash like that? The guy went through 2 concrete walls and slammed into a large tree. Then he and his passengers walked away. What more could you ask from a car?

    The video does seem to show fire in the passenger compartment, but that could be the battery vents allowing the flames to be directed to the sides and upward. In any case, the post fire pictures of the car do not correlate with your claim that half the car was consumed. Also, the people inside were not incapacitated in this or any other Model S crash. They walked away.

    And quit it with the sensationalist explosion thing. Batteries DO NOT explode. They can burn at very high temperatures. A tank of gas matches the definition of bomb much better than a battery.

    If you think statistics are irrelevant, there’s more wrong with you than can be fixed.

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    • By Russ Finley on November 2, 2013 at 12:13 am

      Why does nobody seem to think the Mercedes S-class, BMW 7-series, Jaguar XJ, or Lexus LS have “outrageous” price tags?

      Nobody? Isuspect that 99% of the people on this planet think that those cars also have “outrageous price tags.”

      Yet for some reason the Tesla Model S which is the first great electric car is considered overpriced.

      The Tesla is a fine car for people inclined to purchase a car that costs so much, but you have to define “great” for me to continue that part of the
      discussion, and overpriced while you’re at it. A $40,000 battery can do great
      things but you can see how that won’t scale.

      I sense a lot of negative bias.

      Me too. Why all the negativity? Are you that biased in favor of your choice of vehicle?

      Those lithium fires were not spectacular.

      Admittedly, like art, spectacular is in the eye of the beholder.

      They didn’t spread or consume the entire vehicle unlike the fuel in an ICE vehicle

      Like a gasoline fire, how much damage the burning Tesla batteries do depends on how long it takes for the fire department to arrive.

      Also, no one has been seriously injured in a Model S. It has done its job time and again, even in some pretty horrific crashes. In every case, the driver and passengers walked away from it. That’s the mark of a safe car. What happens to the car is pretty much irrelevant so long as the occupants remain safe.

      Are you trying to suggest that nobody will ever be seriously injured in one? That’s absurd. It’s only a matter of time. It’s just a car with a high collision
      rating. That isn’t a guarantee that you can’t be killed in one.

      Is there any car that wouldn’t have caught fire after a crash like that?

      I’ve driven by a lot of bad car crashed in my time. Very few cars catch fire after a crash, even very bad crashes. Most car fires are the result of leaks or from hitting road debris that punctures fuel lines or a gas tank. My wife drove past one just tonight.

      The guy went through 2 concrete walls and slammed into a large tree. Then he and his passengers walked away. What more could you ask from a car?

      LOL … cars may crash into concrete walls …they don’t go through them. A few days ago it was one concrete wall … now its two of them. Tomorrow it may be half a dozen. he story gets bigger with each retelling.

      The video does seem to show fire in the passenger compartment, but that could be the battery vents allowing the flames to be directed to the sides and upward.

      Riiight.

      In any case, the post fire pictures of the car do not correlate with your claim that half the car was consumed.

      We will need to settle on the definition of “consumed.” Cleary, the video showed that flames reached half of the car length, belying the earlier Tesla statement.

      Also, the people inside were not incapacitated in this or any other Model S crash. They walked away.

      Strawman arguments don’t work in internet comment fields. I never said that theoccupants were incapacitated. Your insinuation that occupants of Teslas are impervious to injury is, ah, somebody pick a word for me.

      And quit it with the sensationalist explosion thing. Batteries DO NOT explode.

      Sure they do. Watch the Mexico fire video again. That exploding noise and flash you see is from exploding batteries.

      A tank of gas matches the definition of bomb much better than a battery.

      You are confusing a battery with a battery pack, which, in the case of a Tesla is an assemblage of thousands of batteries. A tank of gasoline can’t explode. An explosion can only occur when just the right mixture of gas fumes and oxygen is reached, which is very rare. A burning pool of gasoline is not an explosion. individual batteries are clearly exploding in the Mexico video.

      If you think statistics are irrelevant, there’s more wrong with you than can be fixed.

      Again, strawman arguments don’t work in internet comment fields. Critique the
      reasoning, not the one doing the reasoning …( Asinus). From the article:

      On the flip side, it could harm the image of electric cars if this latest trend of catching on fire continues, or accelerates. I’ve looked into the statistics and have concluded that, to date, a significantly smaller percentage of Tesla’s catch on fire than conventional cars. Although, that could change with time.

      I appreciate the Tesla because of the positive image it has brought to electric cars in general. But the truth is, any electric car with $40,000 worth of battery will have the same range and acceleration. To impress me, the Tesla will have to do that for a lot less money. The White Zombie, an electric 1972 Datsun 200, would leave a Tesla in the dust in a drag race.

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      • By QKodiak on November 2, 2013 at 5:23 pm

        Most people think that, but journalists and reviewers don’t seem to think so, except for the Tesla Model S, and I’ve read hundreds of articles on high end cars.

        Let me tell you why it is a great car. It contains an unprecedented blend of efficiency, style, performance, range, technology, convenience, practicality, and cargo space.
        It’s EPA rated to 89 mpge, is one of the few electric cars that looks beautiful, can do 0-60 as fast as 3.9 sec., has an extremely low center of gravity making it handle well, has gobs of smooth, linear, instant, effortless torque available anytime, is EPA rated to 208 or 265 miles, has an 17″ touchscreen with wirelessly upgradeable interface, can “fill up” at home at 4x the cost of a comparable car, can Supercharge for FREE in 30-45 min., has 5 real seats, 2 available jump seats, a frunk, and a total of 63.4 cu. ft. of cargo space.

        There are many reasons why the Model S has won the top honors of so many auto enthusiasts establishments, not just a few.

        That battery doesn’t cost $40,000. The current cost estimates for Tesla are between $200 and $250 per kWh. That’s $12-15,000 for the 60kWh and $17-21,250 for the 85kWh worth of cells. Owner’s replacement costs are $10-12,000 after 8 years or so, which is less than the fuel savings alone.

        I am biased toward electrics and against the ICE for good reason. They are wasteful complicated machines that produce lots of heat and dangerous chemicals. I cannot wait until I can afford an electric car.

        Tesla has firewalls in the car’s structure and battery that prevent the fire from spreading as quickly as they would in ICE-powered vehicles. It’s still worth noting that no one has been injured in a Tesla Model S.

        Here’s the link to the account that I read: http://jalopnik.com/another-tesla-model-s-caught-fire-after-a-crash-in-mexi-1453376349

        About the batteries exploding, you are right. Forgive me for my ignorance.

        White Zombie is using ultra-high power prototype batteries and a custom built motor. Everyone knows it is possible to build a car that’s cheaper and faster than any production equivalent. That’s why people do it all the time. I highly respect John Wayland, and want to build one of my own. I’d just use a more desirable body for my car.

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        • By Russ Finley on November 3, 2013 at 6:38 pm

          Great comment… thanks

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  2. By Russ Finley on November 9, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Some thoughts on the third Tesla Model S fire

    Tesla doesn’t have much to worry about as long as their car does not continue to catch on fire at a rate that eventually surpass that of conventional cars. Although, at the present rate, this could happen in a hurry. It is entirely possible that the Tesla Model S is more likely to catch on fire when hitting road debris than conventional cars because just a few (or possibly just one) punctured batteriy (out of thousands) appears to result in a fire hot enough to ignite adjacent batteries, resulting in a domino effect. A punctured gas line or tank may always result in a leak but it rarely results in a fire. On the other hand, there are a lot of gas leaks as a result of hitting things.

    A quick Google search didn’t turn up any goofy excuses coming from Tesla this time, which IMHO is probably a wise move. I did find several articles where the driver was quoted as saying that the car saved his life, which makes no sense. It saved his life by catching on fire?

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    • By Robert Rapier on November 9, 2013 at 3:01 pm

      “It is entirely possible that the Tesla Model S is more likely to catch on fire when hitting road debris than conventional cars because just a few (or possibly just one) punctured batteriy (out of thousands) appears to result in a fire hot enough to ignite adjacent batteries”

      That’s what I have wondered about — whether relatively minor accidents will lead to fires more often than in conventional automobiles.

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    • By jehu on January 12, 2014 at 7:25 am

      Russ your logic is flawed, your bias against the model S is so obvious, instead of writing an intelligent article explaining what the cars flaws are you write a childish piece saying you don’t understand why so “expensive”, Why is Elon saying what he’s saying and the best one here “driver was quoted as saying that the car saved his life, which makes no sense. It saved his life by catching on fire?”
      Yes Russ, The car save its passenger’s life because it caught fire, I’m sure thats what the driver was talking about and not about the accident that caused the fire.

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      • By Russ Finley on January 13, 2014 at 11:39 pm

        …instead of writing an intelligent article explaining what the cars flaws are you write a childish piece saying you don’t understand why so “expensive”

        Strawman arguments don’t work in comment fields. I never said that I don’t understand why it is so expensive. As with the Leaf, the main cost driver is the battery pack. Read:

        How to Turn a Tesla Battery Pack Into a $40,000 Brick

        Childish is largely in the eye of the beholder.

        The passenger was talking about the car’s high crash safety rating, I was talking about the fact that it caught on fire.

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