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Model S battery fire hits Tesla share price

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October 3, 2013

A Tesla Model S that did not have a battery fire (Photo: Crixxor)

A Tesla Model S that did not have a battery fire (Photo: Crixxor)

A Tesla Model S electric automobile, a model which recently won Consumer Reports' Top Scoring Car award and aced the NHTSA's crash rating system, caught fire yesterday in an incident near Seattle. Tesla's shares fell 6.2 percent on the day as a result of the incident.

"Yesterday, a Model S collided with a large metallic object in the middle of the road, causing significant damage to the vehicle," Tesla said in a statement to Jalopnik. "The car’s alert system signaled 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. Subsequently, a fire caused by the substantial damage sustained during the collision was contained to the front of the vehicle thanks to the design and construction of the vehicle and battery pack. All indications are that the fire never entered the interior cabin of the car. It was extinguished on-site by the fire department."

The 85 kWh lithium ion battery is located under the floor of the passenger compartment of the Model S. Only one of the 16 modules was damaged when a metallic object was thrown up from the road and impacted the battery pack. There were no injuries in the fire, which was tackled by firefighters from the Kent Regional Fire Authority. This video, taken by a passer by, shows the fire.

International Business Times relates that, based on an incident report filed by the Regional Fire Authority of Kent, Washington, the fire appeared at one time to be brought under control, but the flames reignited. As water seemed to intensify the fire, firefighters began to use a dry chemical extinguisher. In the end, the front end of the car had to be disassembled. Holes were punched in the battery pack, and a circular saw provided access to apply water to the battery, which finally quenched the fire.

The US government is not investigating the incident, as it has shut down nonessential operations.

UPDATE, October 4, 2013:

Tesla has released the following statement regarding the incident:

About the Model S fire

By Elon Musk, Chairman, Product Architect & CEO

Earlier this week, a Model S traveling at highway speed struck a large metal object, causing significant damage to the vehicle. A curved section that fell off a semi-trailer was recovered from the roadway near where the accident occurred and, according to the road crew that was on the scene, appears to be the culprit. The geometry of the object caused a powerful lever action as it went under the car, punching upward and impaling the Model S with a peak force on the order of 25 tons. Only a force of this magnitude would be strong enough to punch a 3 inch diameter hole through the quarter inch armor plate protecting the base of the vehicle.

The Model S owner was nonetheless able to exit the highway as instructed by the onboard alert system, bring the car to a stop and depart the vehicle without injury. A fire caused by the impact began in the front battery module – the battery pack has a total of 16 modules – but was contained to the front section of the car by internal firewalls within the pack. Vents built into the battery pack directed the flames down towards the road and away from the vehicle.

When the fire department arrived, they observed standard procedure, which was to gain access to the source of the fire by puncturing holes in the top of the battery's protective metal plate and applying water. For the Model S lithium-ion battery, it was correct to apply water (vs. dry chemical extinguisher), but not to puncture the metal firewall, as the newly created holes allowed the flames to then vent upwards into the front trunk section of the Model S. Nonetheless, a combination of water followed by dry chemical extinguisher quickly brought the fire to an end.

It is important to note that the fire in the battery was contained to a small section near the front by the internal firewalls built into the pack structure. At no point did fire enter the passenger compartment.

Had a conventional gasoline car encountered the same object on the highway, the result could have been far worse. A typical gasoline car only has a thin metal sheet protecting the underbody, leaving it vulnerable to destruction of the fuel supply lines or fuel tank, which causes a pool of gasoline to form and often burn the entire car to the ground. In contrast, the combustion energy of our battery pack is only about 10% of the energy contained in a gasoline tank and is divided into 16 modules with firewalls in between. As a consequence, the effective combustion potential is only about 1% that of the fuel in a comparable gasoline sedan.

The nationwide driving statistics make this very clear: there are 150,000 car fires per year according to the National Fire Protection Association, and Americans drive about 3 trillion miles per year according to the Department of Transportation. That equates to 1 vehicle fire for every 20 million miles driven, compared to 1 fire in over 100 million miles for Tesla. This means you are 5 times more likely to experience a fire in a conventional gasoline car than a Tesla!

For consumers concerned about fire risk, there should be absolutely zero doubt that it is safer to power a car with a battery than a large tank of highly flammable liquid.

— Elon

Sources: Jalopnik, International Business Times

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer.   All articles by Brian Dodson
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20 Comments

I've owned only diesel cars for the last 18 years but if I was worried about being incinerated in a car crash my choices would be in order.

EV

Diesel

Gasoline

LPG

Facebook User
3rd October, 2013 @ 06:34 am PDT

It will be interesting to see exactly what caused the fire. Was it directly caused by the damage to the battery, or did damage to another component lead to the fire, and the battery joined?

Regardless, EVs are still far more safe than a gasoline car.

tyme2par4
3rd October, 2013 @ 09:17 am PDT

Magnesium car parts on fire are a nightmare, water makes a worse burn, and CO2 on magnesium fire is also a problem. Burning titanium is also a problem.

Read the link and google if a concern:

http://firelink.monster.com/training/articles/849-is-it-time-to-change-our-training-yet-part-4-magnesium-fires?page=1

Dave B13
3rd October, 2013 @ 09:46 am PDT

How on earth would a highly reactive metal like lithium catch fire? Very odd. I hear that some lithium batteries in laptops caught fire when over used or over charged? I wonder if the lithium batteries that burned in this care is some how related to lithium laptop batteries that burn.

Of course that is sarcasm. Batteries are for toys not transportation. We need to ban EV car so these companies will stop wasting time and money on these stupid things. We could do so much more if we focused on bio fuels, CNG or even straight Hydrogen.

Mantion
3rd October, 2013 @ 05:32 pm PDT

Typical alarmist reaction to a non-issue. Anything to smear the image of electrics.

How many people perished in internal combustion vehicle fires before they got that one right?

Regardless, its all an engineering fix:

"Only one of the 16 modules was damaged when a metallic object was thrown up from the road and impacted the battery pack."

Install bash plate to protect pack from mechanical damage

"As water seemed to intensify the fire, firefighters began to use a dry chemical extinguisher. In the end, the front end of the car had to be disassembled. "

Install a dry chemical fire suppression system around the battery pack and power electronics modules.

"Holes were punched in the battery pack, and a circular saw provided access to apply water to the battery, which finally quenched the fire."

Make maintenance ports available that can be accessed in an emergency from the outside of the vehicle to pump dry chem and/water into the pack below with venting to allow the water easy circulation through the pack.

"All indications are that the fire never entered the interior cabin of the car. "

Insulate the pack with fire proof material so this is a certainty.

Nairda
3rd October, 2013 @ 07:54 pm PDT

A Ferrari catches fire and its no big deal. An electric car does and its news?

Rocky Stefano
4th October, 2013 @ 05:54 am PDT

Another thing came to mind that may make for a safer battery system. Tesla uses thousands of little batteries with a lot of monitoring and car contained selection of them for use. It seems fire would spread slower from one burning battery to heat up and start other batteries burning, Than the fewer larger batteies used in other EV battery systems:

http://auto.howstuffworks.com/tesla-roadster.htm

"... Tesla went with technology proven in the laptop computer field -- rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. The Roadster contains 6,831 of them. ..."

Also there are different versions of the lithium batteries, more recent ones far less likely to self destruct than earlier designs.

Dave B13
4th October, 2013 @ 09:24 am PDT

We learn from the video that something penetrated the battery pack as a result of the accident. Can you imagine what would have happened with an ICE vehicle if the fuel line or the gas tank had been penetrated? More like this: http://ktla.com/2013/06/19/driver-killed-in-fiery-car-crash-in-hollywood/#axzz2gkcCH2Dx That driver might still be alive if he'd been driving a Tesla instead of a Mercedes.

CliffG
4th October, 2013 @ 09:34 am PDT

It's big news when you have the financial interests standing by just looking for any reason to short this stock and make millions in the process.

All they need is an incident that will puncture the aura of invincibility around the stock and then as the investor psychology changes, they pile on.

It isn't just all about the technology. The same old human traits- fear, greed, envy, hubris- all will play at one point or another in this story, as long as Wall Street has anything to do with it.

morongobill
4th October, 2013 @ 09:40 am PDT

In the past couple of weeks, a lamborghini, a ferrari, and Van Dykes Jaguar all caught fire and burned to the ground. Did the respective shares in those companies take a hit?

The fact that Tesla shares was mentioned, the selling of said share is from day-readers, people who were profit taking, and selling on the news. Nothing more.

To the guy who argues for a cessation of battery powered vehicles, you obviously have a no substantive understanding of something as simple as energy density, and the entropy of powering vehicles with hydrogen.

Mitchele Vigil
4th October, 2013 @ 09:42 am PDT

A drunk driver slammed into a Honda Civic in a rear end collision. The gas tank burst and caught on fire. The driver was engulfed in flames. The tires were burning, the door handle scorching hot, and the doors pinched shut. I cannot forget the image. Yelling for the driver to undo his safety belt, I leaned into the burning Civic, through it's Sun Roof, and attempted to pull the guy out. He was too big, and I had poor leverage. Thinking about it, like in right now, makes me nearly wretch. The smell was...

My hands were burned, with attached burned flesh. My face had second degree burns. My knees were also likewise burned. Jumping off the car, a side glance at my failure, well it is still haunting. This was about 1982.

I am not against gasoline powered cars but this bizarre fear of Electric Vehicles borders on unfounded paranoia. Gasoline is dangerous, but manageable. My Great Grandfather was accidentally electrocuted in a line repair accident in 1911. I respect electricity, but I am far from an unbridled fear of it. Prior to cars, horses were far more dangerous. I know, I have spent many a mile on the self thinking quadrupeds.

As improvements go on, my bet is that such EV cars will be far safer than gas cars, but maybe not as fun per the burble of exhaust and the rumble of unleashed horses. (yes electrics can mimic even this) As was said, a non issue. Indeed.

lwesson
4th October, 2013 @ 10:22 am PDT

Design News recently had an article on EV's. The fact that the Volt was not included seemed strange to me. I wrote that Bob Lutz was the father of the modern day electric vehicle. And on another occasion pointed out that he had said that the amateurs would not do it and I also pointed out that the approach toward the batteries made the vehicles very vulnerable.

This accident proves that and I'd assert that a side impact is especially dangerous and the recent Government tests made no mention of a side impact.

Elon took one of GM's best designers and you can see that in these vehicles.

And an article in the Detroit "Freep" this week mentions that GM is trying to learn from Tessla... what they should be learning is that Bob Lutz and the teams that he assembled knew exactly what they were doing so GM really ought to revisit Bob and the teams that created the Volt and the Converj rather than run around like chickens with their heads cut off.

Island Architect
4th October, 2013 @ 10:46 am PDT

Via EV webpage, news bits & backup info from:

http://www.plugincars.com/how-media-responded-tesla-model-s-fire-128476.html

ABC News:

... Tesla's battery differs from other electric and hybrid cars, Jeff Chamberlain [deputy director of the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Lab in Illinois] noted, and its design actually lowers the risk of fire propagating. "The Chevy Volt has 288 battery cells that are about the size of your hand," he said. "The Model S uses a different set of cells and has between 8,000 to 11,000 of them. When you divide those cells up the way Tesla did, the [risk] of fire spreading goes down." ...

MIT Technology Review:

“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 Statesin 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,” he told me in an email, typing in all caps.”

Dave B13
4th October, 2013 @ 11:04 am PDT

The railway was terrified of diesel locomotives when they first came into use. Will take an EV over a rolling gas bomb any day!

Rehab
4th October, 2013 @ 12:53 pm PDT

And exactly how many IC car fires are reported per year? A little less bias in your reporting would make you look less, now what's the word, oh yes that word would be stupid!

Jerry Peavy
4th October, 2013 @ 04:13 pm PDT

EV are a bad idea but not because the batteries are more dangerous than an energy equivalent of gasoline they are but as this fire show they can be packaged to make them reasonably safe; gas tanks could be improved as well.

The warning is really cool.

Slowburn
5th October, 2013 @ 05:16 am PDT

Ohh and certain interest groups are loving this news and making sure it is more news than it is worth. I mean really! By the reaction to this, one would feel tempted to assume that no gasoline powered car has ever cought on fire after being involved in a accident!

This is non news, blown out of proportion by some with an interest in ensuring that the status quo in maintained.

Elmar Moelzer
6th October, 2013 @ 02:50 pm PDT

"Of course that is sarcasm. Batteries are for toys not transportation. We need to ban EV car so these companies will stop wasting time and money on these stupid things. We could do so much more if we focused on bio fuels, CNG or even straight Hydrogen. "

If everyone had a mindset similar to this, nothing would have ever been invented. Let me guess - you work for someone else.

noteugene
7th October, 2013 @ 12:38 pm PDT

I had 2 young cousins who were incinerated standing behind my uncle's car when he started it and it backfired. And, how many people were burned alive in Pinto crashes in the 70's? I'll take an electric car ESPECIALLY a Tesla over ANY gasoline powered car - even more now since I saw how the car handled a major catastrophe like being impaled with a huge piece of metal from a semi. In my opinion, the stock should've gone up from the news of the incident. It's obviously the safest car on the road.

darklight_413
7th October, 2013 @ 08:33 pm PDT

@ Mantion - Hydrogen as a safer form of fuel? Seriously?

It is far easier to contain the threat of fire from a lithium battery system than that from a hydrogen fuel system.

Ian McIntosh
8th October, 2013 @ 07:33 pm PDT
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