First, let it be known that, to date, not a single Tesla Model S has spontaneously combusted. However, with a confirmed third Tesla Model S fire on record in just a couple months’ time, is there something we should be concerned about?
The first Tesla Model S fire, in Seattle, Washington, occurred after the driver ran over some debris in the middle of the lane on the highway, a metal truck part. The piece of metal, significantly more substantial than, say, an aluminum can, impaled the lithium-ion battery pack under the vehicle, through ¼”-thick armor plating. A second fire, in Merida, Mexico, occurred when a drunk driver struck multiple objects, including an electrified wall and a tree.
Thanks to the firewalled-module design of the Tesla Model S battery pack, the flammable electrolyte never propagated past the ruptured part of the battery, restricting fire damage to the front of the vehicle. Both drivers were able to exit the vehicle safely, and no damage affected the passenger cabin. The drunk driver was able to flee the scene safely.
Now, a third Tesla Model S has caught fire in Smyrna, Tennessee, before which the driver was able to exit the vehicle safely and remove his belongings. Firefighters on the scene were able to put out the fire with no trouble. His posting on the Tesla Motors enthusiasts blog tells his tale…
I was driving home… approximately 70 miles per hour… In the middle of the lane, there was a rusty three-pronged trailer hitch that was sticking up with the ball up in the air… I did not have enough time to swerve to avoid the hitch, and it went below my car. I felt a firm “thud” as the hitch struck the bottom of the car, and it felt as though it even lifted the car up in the air.…
…later, the message on the dashboard display read, Please pull over safely. Car is shutting down. I was able to fully control the car the entire time and safely pulled off the left shoulder… about two minutes after I walked away, the front of the car caught on fire. …From the time of impact of the object until the time the car caught fire was about five minutes. During this time, the car warned me that it was damaged and instructed me to pull over. I never felt as though I was in any imminent danger. While driving after I hit the object until I pulled over, the car performed perfectly, and it was a totally controlled situation. There was never a point at which I was anywhere even close to any flames.
…I would buy another one in a heartbeat.
Juris Shibayama, MD
Of course, with a third Tesla Model S fire, I wonder if NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration], who previously saw no need to investigate the first Seattle fire, will investigate the design and safety systems on the Tesla Model S. Since none of these vehicles has set itself on fire, I really don’t see that there’s an issue. On the other hand, how many car fires occur every year in conventional vehicles?