Tesla Battery Fire update

Latest update [8th October]: “Tesla Motors had regained most of the value it lost in the wake of the accident” after Jefferies analyst Elaine Kwei boosted her price target on the company’s stock to $210 after visiting Tesla and test driving a Model S.

Key points:

  • Tesla shares fall 6% 24 hours after the news broke
  • Drop is shares may also have been caused by an analyst downgrade
  • Incident report suggested the fire was started in the battery
  • Driver is said to have hit a large piece of metal debris that caused the crash
  • firefighters said to have struggled to contain the flames
  • [8th October]Tesla’s stock value recovers almost to the pre-fire value

Statement from Tesla:

“The vehicle performed as it was designed to do…

…On Tuesday, a Model S collided with a large metallic object in the middle of the road, causing significant damage to the vehicle, the car’s alert system signalled a problem and instructed the driver to pull over safely, which he did. No one was injured, and the sole occupant had sufficient time to exit the vehicle safely and call the authorities.

The fire occurred after one of the 12 batteries used to power the vehicle was ruptured, and ignited. Each of these batteries is isolated from the others behind fire-proof barriers, none of which failed in the blaze.

The cabin of the car is similarly protected and even after the car burned, these stopped any damage to the interior and the fire department was able to extinguish the blaze using normal fire-fighting materials”

Bad news for the EV industry?

Well the hype has affected Tesla’s stock, which many believe is overpriced anyway. But that aside: this is raising concerns about the safety of the batteries again. The fact that “normal” cars can catch fire, or that petrol is indeed highly flammable (more so than lithium Ion batteries?) or even that the Tesla is perhaps statistically 10 times less likely to catch fire than a normal car* – people don’t want to drive cars that they think will catch fire easily and/or without warning – that is exactly the kind of press this incident is generating, albeit by headlines rather than the detail of the articles.

Kevin Bullis (Senior Energy Editor) at the MIT Technology Review has written a nice piece on this, please read it.

“vehicle fires are very common. One battery researcher, Jeff Dahn of Dalhousie University, pointed out to me this afternoon that there were 187,000 vehicle fires in the United States in 2011. That’s one fire for every 1,738 cars on the road. With Tesla this fire makes one out of almost 20,000. That’s 10X less frequent,”

But as much as I want to agree with those cigarette-packet stats, the fact remains that the car batteries caught fire and the resulting blaze was difficult to put out – no one was hurt, but the circumstances could easily have been different. *I think those stats are questionable anyway: lots of cars do catch fire every day, but I am sure most of those cars are old and/or have wear and age-related faults. New cars rarely catch fire unless (like the Model S) they are involved in collisions/impacts – it would be interesting to look at how many cars which are less than two years old catch fire as a result of collisions, and see if the Model S is safer in that comparison.

But at the end of the day: consumers don’t want to drive a car that might catch fire. The fact that we already do, and that our combustion cars (pardon the pun) may be more likely to catch fire than the Tesla S, wont necessarily stop the Tesla S and other electric cars gaining a reputation for bad fire safety, and losing sales as a result.

The hype surrounding this story shouldn’t be a surprise: The Tesla has so-far been a success story: they created a great car, at the right time, and they made the best use of marketing and the Elon Musk brand to capitalise on it – the press love a fall from grace, but even the less cynical amongst us will recognise that Tesla made very bold statements about how safe the car is, and Elon Musk himself was publicly critical of Airbus for having unsafe batteries, which happen to be the same chemistry as the batteries he uses in the Model S.

“The lithium-ion batteries installed on the Boeing 787 are inherently unsafe. Unfortunately, the pack architecture supplied to Boeing is inherently unsafe; large cells without enough space between them to isolate against the cell-to-cell thermal domino effect means it is simply a matter of time before there are more incidents of this nature” – source: Flight Global Magazine

That’s called setting yourself up for a fall.

And how different would this story new be if someone had been killed? When that does happen (and lets face it; someone will manage it), Tesla will have another big press management issue on their hands and they may have to answer to safety regulators too, with all of the pain of re-calls and investigations, not to mention the litigious US public.

You only have to look a bit deeper at the GM crops debate to realise that the hype doesn’t match the science, but none the less GM crops are still banned in many countries, and indeed the products from GM derived crops, despite many clear and scientifically demonstrated advantages such as reduced use of pesticides, increased productivity and reduced water usage.

Perhaps comparing the two issues is extreme, but none the less (and whatever your personal view on GM crops): the total misinformation about the subject as rife and remains hugely influential of public opinion. Fact and rational reasoning don’t always feature heavily in the public conciousness.

At the end of the day: it is a absolutely brilliant car, which has single handedly moved the EV industry forward a giant step bit technically and in terms of public opinion. It’s possible that EV sales will be affected by the belief that they are likely to catch fire, whether rational or not.

Tesla are handling this issue very well so far, which is good, because the entire industry has a stake in their success.

Read the MIT Technology Review story here: What the Tesla Battery Fire Means for Electric Vehicles | MIT Technology Review

Other news coverage:

Please Calm the Hell Down About the Tesla Model S Fire

Tesla Says Car Fire Started in Battery
New York Times (USA)

Tesla Stock Plummets After Report Of Model S Catching On Fire
Huffington Post (USA)

After Model S Fire, Wall Street Throws Cold Water on Tesla
Fox Business News (USA)

‘Safe’ Tesla Model S bursts into flames on US highway
The Telegraph (UK)

Tesla Model S Catches Fire: Is This Tesla’s ‘Toyota’ Moment?
Car Connection Website (USA)

Tesla Model S catches fire near Seattle, no injuries reported
Autoblog (USA)

New blow for Tesla: Fire in the ‘world’s safest electric car’ began in vehicle’s battery
Daily Mail (UK)

Tesla ‘safest car ever made’ Model S EV crashes and burns. Only share price hurt
The Register (UK)

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