A small handful of Tesla electric cars have caught fire, driving down the company’s stock price, and finally prompting CEO Elon Musk to tackle the issue in a new blog posting.
“Since the Model S went into production last year, there have been more than a quarter million gasoline car fires in the United States alone, resulting in over 400 deaths and approximately 1,200 serious injuries (extrapolating 2012 NFPA data),” he wrote in that posting. “However, 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.”
Responsible journalism on the matter, he added, has been “drowned out” by “an onslaught of popular and financial media seeking to make a sensation out of something that a simple Google search would reveal to be false.” According to his own figures, Tesla suffers an average of one fire per 6,333 cars, versus a rate of one fire per 1,350 gasoline-powered cars. Every Tesla vehicle includes internal walls between the battery modules, in addition to a firewall between the battery pack and the passenger compartment—enough shielding, in the event of a fire, to prevent pens and papers in the glove compartment from combusting.
“Despite multiple high-speed accidents, there have been no deaths or serious injuries in a Model S of any kind ever,” Musk continued. “Of course, at some point, the law of large numbers dictates that this, too, will change, but the record is long enough already for us to be extremely proud of this achievement.”
Tesla is about to push an “over-the-air update” to its vehicles’ air suspension that will create more ground clearance at highway speeds. In theory, that could reduce the chances of impact damage to the underbody, should the vehicle roll over an object—and that, in turn, could lower the chances of fire.
The company is also making a very public show of asking the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to conduct a full investigation of the fires. “While we think it is highly unlikely,” Musk wrote, “if something is discovered that would result in a material improvement in occupant fire safety, we will immediately apply that change to new cars and offer it as a free retrofit to all existing cars.”
Third, Musk plans on adjusting Tesla’s warranty policy to cover any damages due to fire (except, of course, a Tesla owner actively trying to set their vehicle ablaze).
Tesla is no stranger to controversy. Earlier this year, a very public battle erupted between Musk and New York Times reporter John Broder, who claimed in a much-circulated column that the electric-powered Model S sedan had ground to a halt during a test drive up the East Coast. Broder suggested the luxury vehicle’s battery, adversely affected by the winter weather, had failed to last between the Tesla power-charging stations.
At the time, Musk engaged in a similarly frontal campaign of damage control, attacking the column in a lengthy corporate blog posting. “After a negative experience several years ago with Top Gear, a popular automotive show, where they pretended that our car ran out of energy and had to be pushed back to the garage, we always carefully data log media drives,” he wrote at the time. “While the vast majority of journalists are honest, some believe the facts shouldn’t get in the way of a salacious story.” Musk even posted the data from Broder’s drive, which suggested the reporter had driven the vehicle at faster speeds than he claimed in the article (which would have drained the battery at a quicker rate), and that he had failed to fully charge the car at the available “supercharger” stations.
But a series of fires is a much more existential threat to Tesla than a bad review, even if the latter appears in a prominent newspaper. Despite his PR push, Musk will ultimately have to wait and see if the media buzz over the blazes will harm his sales—and by extension, his dreams of a golden age of electric cars.