The Tesla Fires Are Fixable 23122

Charles Murray

February 21, 2014

5 Min Read
The Tesla Fires Are Fixable

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.

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About the Author(s)

Charles Murray

Charles Murray is a former Design News editor and author of the book, Long Hard Road: The Lithium-Ion Battery and the Electric Car, published by Purdue University Press. He previously served as a DN editor from 1987 to 2000, then returned to the magazine as a senior editor in 2005. A former editor with Semiconductor International and later with EE Times, he has followed the auto industry’s adoption of electric vehicle technology since 1988 and has written extensively about embedded processing and medical electronics. He was a winner of the Jesse H. Neal Award for his story, “The Making of a Medical Miracle,” about implantable defibrillators. He is also the author of the book, The Supermen: The Story of Seymour Cray and the Technical Wizards Behind the Supercomputer, published by John Wiley & Sons in 1997. Murray’s electronics coverage has frequently appeared in the Chicago Tribune and in Popular Science. He holds a BS in engineering from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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