Third Electric Tesla Goes Up In Smoke!

News wires are buzzing. The news services have been buzzing over the report of the third fire in the all-electric Tesla Model S in ...

News wires are buzzing.

The news services have been buzzing over the report of the third fire in the all-electric Tesla Model S in the past 6 weeks. For some, the news was seen as significant enough to interrupt the coverage of the largest ever typhoon to make landfall in the Philippines on CNN. So, how can a small fire in the battery compartment of a low production volume sports sedan warrant the interruption of a global news event that was affecting the lives of millions of people who were in the path of Typhoon Haiyan?

image: tomolog (Tesla Motor Club)

It wasn’t the first time this week that Tesla, the all-electric car company from California, had made headlines. In fact, we had already written about it in these very pages recently. Fall in the share value of over 15% on Wednesday, 6 November, that had been correctly predicted by Elon Musk, the owner of Tesla, has meant that the company has been hogging the headlines all week. But surely such a small scale car manufacturer is just not that significant news.

Well, maybe this is an event that is earth shattering enough to displace so many other humanitarian stories from the newswires. The first Tesla fire happened last month in Kent, Washington, after the car hit debris on the road that punctured the battery. The second incident happened when the driver of the Model S rammed a wall at a traffic intersection in Mexico. The third and most recent fire occurred this time near Smyrna, Tennessee, after the car ran over a tow hitch and may cause the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to start an investigation. Even after the first fire, they had stated, “After reviewing all available data, the NHTSA has not found evidence at this time that would indicate the recent battery fire involving a Tesla Model S was the result of a vehicle safety defect or non-compliance with federal safety standards.” This third fire may indeed change their view.
There are some 150 000 reported car fires in the USA each year, so for Tesla, who has sold a mere 19 000 Model S cars, this is a pretty significant number. More to the point, this calls into question the long term suitability of the li-ion batteries used by the likes of Tesla, Nissan in the Leaf and Chevrolet in the Volt, or Boeing in the Dreamliner. Whilst there are no reported fires involving the Nissan Leaf, there is 1 for the Chevrolet Volt and, of course, 2 for the Dreamliner. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner was famously grounded after 2 fires that incidentally did not involve a collision but occurred in the battery packs. Although, Boeing was quick to point out that their solution has been accepted as safe and serviceable by the FAA.

Li-ion batteries are still the darling of the alternative fuel, hemp-trouser wearing greenies who trumpet about the need for alternative propulsion systems to replace the use of hydrocarbons, in spite of the slight tarnish that this incident will undoubtedly cast upon the technology. The same li-ion technology that is found in many of today’s advanced products, due to its high power and long life, is doubted by companies such as Toyota and, of course, that other European aircraft manufacturer, Airbus. Both have famously called a timeout on the use of li-ion batteries, preferring to wait for an alternative solution. Is it time to rethink the li-ion battery after just 3 fires and does this make it international news? Well, perhaps it does, after all of the possibly billions of dollars that have gone into research and with so many companies viewing the technology as the way forward. With no other viable alternative available at present, it just may be earth shattering news after all.

Of course, in the interest of a balanced report, it should be pointed out that there has been a total of 70 000 Nissan Leafs sold without a reported fire and Chevrolet has sold some 50 000 Volts with the only reported fire happening during crash testing by federal regulators. The Tesla Model S holds about 4 times as much energy as the others in a battery that spans the underside of the car. In contrast, the Volt employs a T shaped battery that avoids the underside and the Leaf has a battery pack at the rear of the vehicle, similar to where the fuel tank would normally be placed. Although it is early days, the solution for Tesla may be as simple as giving the pack a stronger casing, although this would probably reduce the range of the vehicle. The Model S was recently awarded five stars by the NHTSA for safety. In fact, reports at the time claimed that the vehicle was so safe that it broke the testing rig.


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