• Oct 4, 2013
Earlier this week, a YouTube video surfaced of a Tesla Model S engulfed in flames near a highway exit outside of Kent, Wash. The video, published Tuesday, has received over 2 million views in less than a week, enough to garner a response from Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk via the company's official blog.

The following is an excerpt from Musk's post:

Earlier this week, a Model S travelling [sic] at highway speed struck a large metal object, causing significant damage to the vehicle. A curved section that fell off a semi-trailer was recovered from the roadway near where the accident occurred and, according to the road crew that was on the scene, appears to be the culprit. The geometry of the object caused a powerful lever action as it went under the car, punching upward and impaling the Model S with a peak force on the order of 25 tons. Only a force of this magnitude would be strong enough to punch a 3 inch diameter hole through the quarter inch armor plate protecting the base of the vehicle.

The Model S owner was nonetheless able to exit the highway as instructed by the onboard alert system, bring the car to a stop and depart the vehicle without injury. A fire caused by the impact began in the front battery module – the battery pack has a total of 16 modules – but was contained to the front section of the car by internal firewalls within the pack. Vents built into the battery pack directed the flames down towards the road and away from the vehicle.


You can read the full statement here.

Musk claims that the fire department's standard procedure of puncturing holes in the battery's firewall to gain access to the source of the blaze allowed the flames to travel into the vehicle's front trunk, suggesting that simply dousing the fire with water would have been preferable. The fire was eventually extinguished through a combination of water and dry chemical extinguisher.

According to Musk, the fire never entered the passenger compartment. He speculates that a gas-powered car would have performed much worse under the same circumstances.

"A typical gasoline car only has a thin metal sheet protecting the underbody, leaving it vulnerable to destruction of the fuel supply lines or fuel tank, which causes a pool of gasoline to form and often burn the entire car to the ground," said Musk. "For consumers concerned about fire risk, there should be absolutely zero doubt that it is safer to power a car with a battery than a large tank of highly flammable liquid."

To back up his claims, Musk points to the data, as he's done in the past when defending the performance of his Model S. "There are 150,000 car fires per year according to the National Fire Protection Association, and Americans drive about 3 trillion miles per year according to the Department of Transportation," said Musk. "That equates to 1 vehicle fire for every 20 million miles driven, compared to 1 fire in over 100 million miles for Tesla."

While Musk has demonstrated a preference for supporting his arguments with numbers, he also recently gained notoriety for distorting NHTSA's Model S safety rating. In this instance he draws the conclusion that "you are 5 times more likely to experience a fire in a conventional gasoline car than a Tesla," but we wonder if this statement glosses over a host of important considerations, such as sample size and the driving habits of Model S owners--not that 100 million miles is an insignificant data set.

That said, Musk's point is well-taken. For all the concern over electric vehicle fires, most drivers seem oddly comfortable with the safety of a combustion engine running on flammable gasoline traveling at highway speeds. Even so, that does not mean we should be dismissive of this or any incident that relates to vehicle safety, electric or otherwise.

TRANSLOGIC 113: 2013 Tesla Model S


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  • 47 Comments
      karen and pitts
      • 2 Days Ago
      i remember the junk that fell on the runway from an incompetent repair on another jet. concord hit it, ruptured fuel tank and boom. sad but stuff hAPPENS, EVEN ON SOMETHING AS WELL THOUGHT OUT AS concorde. and challenger.
      Brutal
      • 2 Days Ago
      Common sense dictates a petro powered vehicle is more susceptible to catastrophic fire than a full electric vehicle. So, a Tesla owner ran over an object in just the right manner to puncture the battery and start a fire. It will not be the last time a Tesla burns. But, it won't happen nearly as much as it does in petro powered vehicles. Tesla is an incredible car made by an awesome company. Wish I could afford one.
      • 2 Days Ago
      My son owns a Tesla S. Wow! What a machine. Accidents happen--trite but true. A deadly event -- stray parts from the highway traffic-- contacting just anything nearby is highly deathly. The Tesla S is secure!
      manmi1
      • 2 Days Ago
      That's frightening. Driving down I-95 in Florida is most often like driving in a demolition derby. Every day there are large pieces of just about everything blocking lanes of traffic.
      majorg1000
      • 2 Days Ago
      That is why I will never drive anything but my Ford Pinto.
      newsmyrnasuite
      • 2 Days Ago
      I would love to own a Telsa. Hope they can get a more reasonably priced model on the market in a few years. It's a beautiful vehicle.
      MO MONEY MOMONEY
      • 2 Days Ago
      None of these reports show the cost of replacing the batteries and the frequency. Does anybody Know?
      Pandabear
      • 2 Days Ago
      To be fair, something that can punch a 3" hole in 1/4" plate of steel is going to cause problem in any vehicle, and the design that "direct" flame away seems to be doing its job. What people would want to see is how to prevent a fire from occurring when the battery is punched into, whether by road debris or by fire fighters. They should also have different color on the battery box to tell the fire fighters not to punch it.
      • 2 Days Ago
      LOL, nice try tesla but we're not buying your bs, nor your overpriced flaming fireball.
        • 2 Days Ago
        So rather buy a flaming, overprices Mercedes, BMW, Cadillac, or whatever??
        m_2012
        • 2 Days Ago
        LOL, nice try on a reasonable comment, but you fail.
      nsheats
      • 2 Days Ago
      LOoks like they have done their homework. It appears the Tesla has much better engineering than the average car in respec to safety.
      • 2 Days Ago
      Let's see... How many gasoline-powered cars catch fire every year - THOUSANDS. Yet we hear nothing about them. If a battery fire happens, sure it can do serious damage but a 20-gallon gas tank exploding will do a damn sight more damage to the car, its occupants and much of the surrounding area too. Yet you don't see GM's stock plummet every time a Chevvy ignites so let's get this in perspective folks.
        • 2 Days Ago
        Not a very good argument. We all know there are millions of petrol powered vehicles on the road, right? How many Tesla are there? Not many. So it's safe to say that if you look at it as a percentage you will find that even one Tesla catching fire is a huge amount considering there are so few on the road.
      jalberts.houston
      • 2 Days Ago
      Just to address the earlier post doubting the 25 ton load requirement for any one else that is not familiar with such determinations I entered the below response. "Actually for an engineer it is quite easy to calculate this load requirement based upon the 3" diameter and 1/4" thickness of the plate and only took me about 30 seconds to do the calculation. Assuming that the plate is made of even basic steel plate then the shearing load to punch a hole that size is actually 21 tons. PS I also owned and ran a precision metal fabrication copany and if you were to see the size of the machine required to punch such a hole you understand what I am saying."
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