By now, most followers of the electric car market know that another Tesla Model S caught fire in early February. The blaze happened in a homeowner’s garage in Toronto. After parking the car, the owner left his garage. Moments later, the smoke detector blared, the fire department was called, and the car was ruined. To date, no one knows why.
Within days, though, three predictable things happened: Media outlets reported the story, electric car proponents complained about the coverage, and electric car non-believers cited the fire as one more reason why EVs are doomed.
None of that surprises anyone, of course. The same news-anger-doom cycle has been repeating itself for about two years, every time an electric car catches fire.
Maybe it’s time to get a grip. For some it may be hard to believe, but the decision to cover or not cover an electric car fire isn’t typically an emotional one. It’s a tough choice. EV technology is still new to a degree. An unknown to many, it's costly, current, and under study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Truth be told, EV proponents are just as interested in this subject as the detractors. If you don’t believe that, look at the Tesla Motors online forums. Commenters there, most of whom are true believers, are buzzing about the latest Model S fire. They too want to know what happened.
At some point we’ll all find out. NHTSA might decide that the Model S needs a thicker armor plate, a different cooling system, some other kind of design tweak.
But if there is a change, it will be a tweak. It won’t be a huge fix. Nor will it be a sign that EV batteries are inherently unsafe. Remember, gasoline is far more energetic than lithium-ion chemistry, as is jet fuel. Yet every day, engineers successfully design safe cars that burn gasoline. They design safe planes that burn jet fuel. They design safe machines that burn coal, hydrogen, and even uranium. In all cases, they take a package of energy, figure out how to use it in a productive way, and then build in safeguards.
There’s no reason they can’t do the same with electric car batteries. Maybe the safeguards need to be strengthened. Doing so may add cost, but it can be done, easily.
To be sure, pure electric cars face challenges ahead. Battery energy density is still low and cost is high. Those are real problems. But the miniscule number of battery fires that have occurred to date shouldn’t cause an issue. The news coverage can and should continue, but the anger and doom need to be ratcheted down a few notches.
Engineers will fix this problem. That’s what engineers do.
Engineers will certainly fix this problem but why are they unable to find the cause of fire so far? With improvised modern technology at our disposal, it is hard to believe that cause of fire couldn't be found quick enough. This is one question that even the staunchest of proponents of EVs will be wondering about as is mentioned in the article.
Tesla claims that gasoline cars have a vastly greater probability of catching fire than their cars. They claim that one Model S in ~6333 has caught fire: 19000 (actually more than that now) Model S cars sold and 3 fires. That compared to one fire for every ~1350 gasoline cars. That 1350 statistic, I gather, they base upon http://www.nfpa.org/~/media/Files/Research/Fact%20sheets/FireLossFacts.pdf, and known numbers of gasoline cars on the road. I personally haven't done the math myself.
"Unsafe at Any Speed" was the title of Ralph Nader's 1965 book about the auto industry, which pretty much ended the Corvair as a model. Your observations are true, however. Tesla is the focus of so much media hype and blog criticism for at least two reasons unrelated to safety:
1) the stock price is so high and volatile that investors and brokers can play the ups and downs of the share price; any crumb of news or information invites speculation (in both the information and stock uses of the term). The thread here seems to be feeding that fire.
2) Elon Musk shares some of the Steve Jobs' brilliant-yet-arrogant traits that drive a lot of people crazy. Porsche has just recalled all their 911 GT3s because two of them caught fire, but nobody cares or even knows who runs Porsche. Go figure.
I am with you, NadineJ. I don't have the facts at the moment to back me up, either, but there is a reason the first automobiles were dubbed "unsafe at any speed." There is always some trial and error that goes with new models of any complex invention, and while these fires in EVs are troubling, they aren't particularly surprising, nor are they something that we can expect will be a permanent problem. As Chuck points out, these problems will be fixed eventually.
@Jim, to be more accurate, the fire department said the origin of the fire was engine area but the source remains unkown.(at the time). So whether the source was the Tesla or an external factor remains unkown for now.
I am not exactly saying the Lexus is the cause, there are far few details at this point. But considering the Tesla battery is unharmed, the damage is too severe. Where did all that energy come from? That is why I offered one hypothesis about the vapors from the Lexus as gasoline vapors do carry a good amount of energy. As for there being an explosion, we don't exactly know the surroundings or how sealed the area is. But it would not cause an explosion. (Though in the pictures it is impossible to know if there was or wasn't an explosion anyways).
As far as the owner noticing is not a very reliable indicator. Thousands of gasoline cars ignite every year from leaking gasoline vapors being ignited. If they would have noticed they probably wouldn't be driving those cars. We don't even know if the owner even drove the Lexus anymore though ever since getting his Tesla as from my understanding the Tesla was rather new.
Again, I am not trying to say it was the Lexus. Just pointing out that the damage to the garage is too severe for it to have come from the Tesla considering the battery was unharmed. This points to a high possibility of an external source with one probability being the Lexus gasoline vapors were ignited by the Tesla electrical system. But until we get a report with more details it is hard to say one way or the other, so I am just pointing out my observations with what limited information we have.
In the case of the california incident. The fire department only claimed that the cause of the fire was either the UMC or the outlet but they also noted that the UMC was not damaged in the report. Now of course just because the UMC was not damage does not mean that it was not a possible cause, but it does mean that it is not related to the melting issue. On the other hand, considering that the outlet did not have a permit for being installed (which was not known at the time of the fire investigations). The most probable cause is improper wiring of the outlet. And unfotrunately since there was too much damage to the wall, the fire department did not investigate if the wiring was done right or not.
Allegedly the Toronto fire service determined that the origin of the fire was the Tesla (not the Lexus), though at the time there was no determination what specifically in the Tesla started the fire or how.
Your Lexus gasoline vapor leak as origin hypothesis doesn't have evidence supporting it. Quite the contrary. If there was a vapor leak from the Lexus that was the source, then there should have been an explosion. If there was a gasoline vapor leaking from the Lexus, the owner would have likely noticed it. The timeline by the witness would suggest that there wasn't time for Lexus gasoline vapors to be the source of the Tesla fire.
What happens when accumulated gasoline vapors ignite in an enclosed area? A fire or an explosion?
The publicized photographic evidence suggests that there was no explosion and that the origin was at or near the Tesla, not the Lexus.
So far the investigation findings seem to indicate that the fire originated in the Tesla. The question is what part of the Tesla was the source of a fire? How? Why? Was it a design or manufacturing fault? Was it the fault of after market installation or an aftermarket device? Was it operator error? Was it arson?
I think the most likely cause, is something electrical in the Tesla.
Tesla is trying to sweep the fire under the carpet, not put it in the limelight. Tesla will likely continue to try to keep it as quiet as possible unless, they can figure out some way that they think they can pin the blame someplace else or otherwise spin it to their benefit.
As far as the garage fire in California. The fire department ruled that the Tesla charge system was a possible source of the fire. The Tesla charge system was burned from the UMC module to the wall outlet. This is the same part of the Tesla charger connection that is known to overheat, melt and burn. The Tesla charge connections allegedly have almost a 3% failure rate. Nearly all of the Tesla model Ss have been recalled for these faulty connectors. Allegedly nearly 900 of these connectors have failed. Tesla charge connectors have overheated, melted and burned when there was no sign of overheating at the wall outlet or in the house wiring.
House wiring also is a possible cause in the California fire. There was no permit, but that doesn't mean that the fault was the wiring or wall outlet.
@Jim - The fire deparment said that the when they got there, the fire was in the frunk area. But there was no mention of where the fire started.
We have no photos or any indications on the condition of the Lexus. And I never mentioned a leak involving a liquid spill. What burns is not the gasoline itself but the vapors. A possibility could be that the electrical system ignited the vapor leak. This is actually the #2 most common reason for gasoline cars fire, a electrical short ignites the leaking gas vapors.
As far as pinning it on the Lexus or anything is a bit complex because to have a case you need proof and standing. Which requires an investigation. On top of that your kind of tied down to the owner's time. In the case of the CA fire, it was easy to tell by the fact that the wall was damaged but the car and the charging cable was not on what the cause was. The fact that the outlet was installed illegaly also contributes to it. But in this case there are too many variables to account for. Due to all the media attention they have been getting, I doubt they want to put things in the limelight until they are 100% positive.
Tesla Motors’ $35,000, 200-mile electric car may not revolutionize the auto industry by itself, but it could serve as a starting point for a long, steady climb to a day when half of the world’s vehicles will be plug-ins.
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