NHTSA Opens New Investigation Into Tesla Battery Fires

In a blog post last night, Tesla Motors (NASDAQ: TSLA  ) CEO Elon Musk provided some commentary on the three recent Model S battery fires that resulted from what he said were high-speed accidents, along with a plan for a few actionable steps to address concerns.

Musk said he asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate.

The NHTSA says it opened a preliminary evaluation on Nov. 15 to "examine the potential risks associated with undercarriage strikes on model year 2013 Tesla Model S vehicles." The NHTSA said in the two incidents that happened on U.S. roads, "the vehicle's battery monitoring system provided escalating visible and audible warnings, allowing the driver to execute a controlled stop and exit the vehicle before the battery emitted smoke and fire."

In his blog post, Musk first spoke his mind about the "onslaught of popular and financial media seeking to make a sensation out of something that a simple Google search would reveal to be false." Adding some color, he wrote:

There are now substantially more than the 19,000 Model S vehicles on the road that were reported in our Q3 shareholder letter for an average of one fire per at least 6,333 cars, compared to the rate for gasoline vehicles of one fire per 1,350 cars. By this metric, you are more than four and a half times more likely to experience a fire in a gasoline car than a Model S! Considering the odds in the absolute, you are more likely to be struck by lightning in your lifetime than experience even a non-injurious fire in a Tesla.

In the two fire incidents in the U.S., Tesla vehicles struck metal objects in the road. The objects penetrated the bottom of the car, punctured the battery and caused fires. A third incident, in Mexico, involved a fire after a driver reportedly smashed through a concrete wall and into a tree.

Despite Tesla's belief in the safety of the vehicle, Musk said the company is taking three actions to address the Model S situation.

  1. Tesla has rolled out an "over-the-air" update that will give the car higher ground clearance at highway speeds. In January, Tesla will provide another software update that will "give the driver direct control of the air suspension ride height transitions."
  2. Tesla has requested that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conduct a full investigation into the fires. Why? To combat what Musk called "a false perception about the safety of electric cars."
  3. Tesla is amending its warranty policy "to cover damage due to a fire, even if due to driver error," Musk wrote. When will Model S owners not be covered? Only when the owner "actively tries to destroy the car." Tesla is doing this to "reinforce how strongly we feel about the low risk of fire in our cars," Musk wrote.

This is the second time the NHTSA has looked into a Model S battery fire. After the first inquiry, the agency concluded that the fire was not the result of a defect or any noncompliance with federal safety standards.

-- Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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