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.
- Kia Bares Its Soul EV in Chicago
- Will Parking Problems Slow the Rise of Electric Vehicles?
- Slideshow: Toyota Moves Closer to Fuel Cell Production Car
- Slideshow: Honda Plans Fuel Cell Vehicle for 2015
- Slideshow: Hydrogen-Powered Hyundai to Hit Showrooms in February
- New EV Battery Chemistry Boosts Range, Life
- Tesla to NHTSA: Investigate Our Model S Fires
- Slideshow: Urbee Developer Shooting for 290 MPG
- Is Wireless EV Charging the Better Way?
- EV Battery Maker A123 to Focus on Micro-Hybrids
- Slideshow: 'Bizarre' Incident Led to Tesla Battery Fire
- Video: Impact Caused Tesla Battery Fire
- Toyota Is Sticking With Hybrids
- Long-Range Affordable EV Won't Be Easy
- Slideshow: EVs & Plug-Ins for 2014
- Slideshow: Smart EV Has No Doors or Windows
- Slideshow: Volkswagen Takes a Deep Dive Into Electrics
- Slideshow: Safety Ratings for EVs & Plug-In Hybrids
- Why Electric Cars Are Safer
- Slideshow: BMW Unveils Premium Electric Car
- GM Chops $5,000 From Chevy Volt Price
- Is Range Anxiety Real?
- Slideshow: High-Voltage Hybrids & EVs
- Loss of Subsidies Could Burst EV Bubble
- How Much Would You Pay for an EV?
- Tesla Aims to Win Over Skeptics With Battery Swap Stations
- DOE Tool Compares Gasoline to Electricity Costs
- Slideshow: Automakers Look to a Hydrogen Car Future
- Slideshow: Detroit Electric Unveils 'World's Fastest' Electric Sports Car
- Slideshow: Porsche Plans Plug-In Hybrid
- Lithium-Ion Batteries Overheated in Mitsubishi Vehicles
- Slideshow: Volkswagen to Build World's Most Fuel-Efficient Car
- Slideshow: Fisker Says 'Plug-In Hybrids Make More Sense Than Pure Electrics'
- Auto Execs: Plug-In Hybrids Will Soar, Pure EVs Decline
- Slideshow: Cadillac ELR Trades Efficiency for Power
- Slideshow: Tesla's Model X Blends Electricity & Function
- 'EV Triumph' Needs More Perspective, Less Hype
- Slideshow: BMW's All-Electric Concept Coupe
- Old EV Batteries May Power Homes One Day
- Slideshow: Why Automakers Are Rolling Out Electric Cars
- Slideshow: Chrysler Rolls Out All-Electric Fiat
- Slideshow: GM Debuts Pure-Electric Spark
- Could Pure Electrics Emit More Than Hybrids?
- New Standard Will Cut EV Charging Time
- Future Batteries, by the Numbers
- Big Battery EVs Under Fire
- Chevy Volt: It's Not Time to Panic
- Lead-Acid Batteries Seek New Role in Hybrids, Plug-Ins
- GM to Idle Chevy Volt Production Again
- 54.5 MPG Comes With Trade-Offs
- Slideshow: Top 12 Most Fuel-Efficient EVs & Plug-In Hybrids
- Tesla's CEO: 'Half of Cars Will Be Electric in 15 Years'
- Big Battery Means Big Range, Cost for Tesla's Model S
- EV Battery Chemistry Could Eliminate Cooling Systems
- The 'Conspiracy' Behind the EV Market
- Electric RAV4 Rolls Off Toyota Line
- China's Electric Cars No Better Than Ours
- How Would You Cope With High Gas Prices?
- 'Revenge of the Electric Car' Gives Glimpse Into Minds of EV Faithful
- Why Is EV Battery Development So Hard?
- Hybrid Redux? Not for Most Owners
- EV Batteries: Solid Concept, but Not Ready for Prime Time
- EV Battery Report Says Costs Going Down
- Internal Combustion Engines Primed for Performance
- Electric Car Subsidies Won't Make EV Batteries Better
- Slideshow: Airbags From the Inside Out
- Slideshow: Detroit Auto Show's Concept Cars Roll Hybrid
- Slideshow: Electric Car Batteries Get Bigger
- Slideshow: Detroit Auto Show Highlights EVs, Hybrids
- Tesla Model S Hitting the Road This Summer
- Superbattery: The Next Great Triumph of Engineering
- Li-Ion Batteries in EVs May Last Longer
- Slideshow: 'Start-Stop' Hybrids Hit the Road
- Slideshow: Top 5 Automotive Trends to Watch in 2012
- Slideshow: Autonomous Vehicles Leave the Driving to... Themselves
- Electric Vehicles: How Far Have We Come in 100 Years?
- Would You Buy a Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt?
- GM to Build First All-Electric Car Since EV1
- Slideshow: Car Electronics, From Dashboard Nav to Autonomous Vehicles
- Is GM's EV1 Still the Best Electric Car Ever?
- Does Anyone Know the True Cost of EV Batteries? (Not Really)
- Prius Plugs Into a New Era
- Nissan Bets on the Electric Car
- Tesla Engineer Boosts EV Range to New Heights