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Does Tesla Need a Recall?

Following the third fire involving a Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA  )  Model S electric car, the rumor mill started working overtime that a recall on the luxury vehicle was in the works, or at least warranted, sending the carmaker's stock sharply lower. Although Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk has come out saying there's "definitely" no way he plans to recall his car, federal investigators have opened a review into the fires.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, which compiles such statistics, there were 187,500 gas-powered vehicle fires in 2011, the latest data available, equating to 51 fires every single day. Looked at another way, that's 21 every hour, or one car fire about every three minutes. Considering that there are approximately 247 million cars on U.S. roadways, Musk says there's been one Tesla fire for about every 6,333 Teslas on the road, compared to the rate for gasoline vehicles of one fire per 1,350 cars. Therefore, his electric car is about six-times safer than the average gas-powered car.

There have, indeed, been some high-profile electric-vehicle fires; in particular, those involving General Motors' Chevy Volt. When you look at the number of EVs being produced compared to the number of fires that have erupted, as a whole the percentage is pretty small. And most of those were related to the Fisker Karma, when a parking lot full of them was swamped by storm waters from Hurricane Sandy. Of positive note, though, is the fact that Nissan has yet to have a fire in its all-electric Leaf.

It may be justifiable to yet have reservations about EVs if all it's going to take to engulf one in flames is running over some road debris, which seems to be the cause of two of the three Tesla fires. In Tesla's case, could it be the design of the car, where it's so-called "skateboard" design has the battery pack situated for maximum damage should it encounter detritus on the roads?

Tesla's skateboard design. Source: Tesla Motors

While people, including Musk, liken the gas-powered car to a veritable rolling bomb, they also happen to be paragons of modern engineering, and are incredibly safe and have only gotten more so with each succeeding generation. While a statistic like one car fire every three minutes sounds alarming, it still represents just a tiny fraction of all the vehicles on the road. 

EVs are generally safe vehicles, but there are caveats that should be considered, such as the age of the vehicles involved in car fires and the miles driven. According to the NHTSA, cars fires are "strongly related to the age of the vehicle" with "older vehicles are more likely to experience fires." Add in the amount of miles that have been driven by these older gas-powered cars compared to the obviously newer, low-mileage EVs, and there's a statistic waiting to be sussed out that vehicle fire risk could be higher for these high-tech marvels.

The Center for Auto Safety thinks so, saying two car fires resulting from striking road debris in an otherwise small sampling of vehicles is "highly unusual." In reality though, we don't know because between Tesla, the Volt, and even the Karma we really have but a handful of incidents and that's simply too few to derive any statistical relevance.

At the end of the day, the Model S has been proven to be a remarkably safe vehicle -- even the owner of the car in the latest incident says that he believed the car saved his life. As a result, Tesla shouldn't be punished for a risk that hasn't been proved to exist, and demands for a recall are very premature.

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