Tesla to cover fire damage in warranty, asks NHTSA to investigate

Posted by Rhuaridh Marr
November 19, 2013 1:29 PM |

At last count, there were in excess of 250 million registered vehicles on U.S. roads. Of those many millions, 172,500 gas-powered cars were destroyed by fire last year. That equates to one in every 1,450. Between 2006 and 2010, a gas-powered car had a fire-related incident every three-and-a-half minutes, with those fires killing four people per week.

Why am I telling you this? Mostly due to the sensationalist coverage of the fires that have occurred in Tesla's Model S sedan. To quote Tesla CEO Elon Musk, "the three Model S fires, which only occurred after very high-speed collisions and caused no serious injuries or deaths, received more national headlines than all 250,000+ gasoline fires combined".

Since launching in 2012, Tesla has sold an estimated 19,000 Model S's. In the year it's been available, three models have caught fire. That's one in every 6,333 cars. Exactly zero people have been killed, or even injured in those fires. Why, then, have they been so widely reported in print and online?

People want the Model S to fail. Those who won't accept the all-electric sedan -- who staunchly refuse to drive anything other than gas-powered cars, who don't believe that electric cars are the solution to our addiction to oil, who simply enjoy seeing something fail -- are hanging on to every Model S incident. A fire in the American-designed and American-made Model S? Shock! Horror! It must be faulty!

It isn't. Of the three, two were caused by the cars hitting debris on the road, piercing the battery packs that line the floor of the vehicle. These packs are shielded from impact -- that debris was able to pierce through both times is due to the size of the debris and the speed of travel. The third fire was due to driver error causing a crash, which led to the fire. In all occasions, the drivers and passengers were unharmed, and able to exit the vehicle, with the fire contained within the battery packs by Tesla's firewalls and safeguards. As for the drivers? All have expressed an interest in owning another Tesla to replace their destroyed car.

For Tesla, however, the fires were a perfect storm of media controversy. Occurring in just six weeks, the fires cast a shadow -- however small -- over the reliability and safety of their car. CEO and founder Elon Musk refuses to let such lingering doubts lie in the minds of buyers, so took to the Tesla blog to announce a three-pronged strategy to prevent future fires from occurring. It involves:

  • An over-the-air software update will be delivered to all Model S's, raising the ride height of the car's suspension when it's travelling at highway speeds. This should minimize the likelihood of debris hitting the undercarriage.
  • Tesla has "requested that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conduct a full investigation as soon as possible into the fire incidents." While this may seem like an admission that there is the problem to be discovered, Musk takes a different stance, "[If] a false perception about the safety of electric cars is allowed to linger, it will delay the advent of sustainable transport".
  • The last measure is perhaps the most important -- and a sign of Tesla and Musk's confidence in the car. Tesla is amending their warranty policy to cover "damage due to a fire, even if due to driver error." That's a pretty bold step to take, and "[unless] a Model S owner actively tries to destroy the car," Tesla will honor the warranty agreement.

All three together should, Musk hopes, assuage any remaining fears over the Model S's safety.

Sources: Autoblog, Tesla

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