Feds open investigation into spate of Tesla fires

Elon Musk says the probe was his idea, but he may just be trying to save face

By Lindsay Abrams

Published November 19, 2013 6:31PM (EST)

Any car is capable of bursting into flames if the conditions are right. But people, for whatever reason, expect better from the car that earned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's highest possible safety rating -- which is why a spate of recent Tesla Model S fires have everyone so concerned. Tuesday, NHTSA announced that it's launching an investigation into the electric car, to determine whether its battery is particularly vulnerable to catching fire.

The New York Times reports:

“The agency has opened a formal investigation to determine if a safety defect exists in certain Tesla Model S vehicles,” the agency said in a statement on Tuesday. “The agency’s investigation was prompted by recent incidents in Washington State and Tennessee that resulted in battery fires due to undercarriage strikes with roadway debris.”

A N.H.T.S.A. defect investigation, which can take months to complete, could include crash tests of the vehicle. If a vehicle is determined to have a design defect that poses a safety risk, the government can order the manufacturer to recall cars already on the road and make structural changes. Additionally, regulators can impose fines if a company fails to address the problems.

In a blog post Monday night, Tesla chairman and chief executive Elon Musk claimed this whole safety investigation thing was his idea, pointing out, as well, that conventional cars are far more dangerous than electric ones. "Given that the incidence of fires in the Model S is far lower than combustion cars and that there have been no resulting injuries, this did not at first seem like a good use of NHTSA’s time compared to the hundreds of gasoline fire deaths per year that warrant their attention," he wrote. However, he added, "if a false perception about the safety of electric cars is allowed to linger, it will delay the advent of sustainable transport and increase the risk of global climate change, with potentially disastrous consequences worldwide. That cannot be allowed to happen."

NHTSA disputes Musk's version of events, according to the LA Times, claiming instead that the agency "notified the automaker of its plans to open a formal investigation and requested their cooperation."

The probe affects all 13,000 Model S vehicles that were sold in the U.S. this year, for a base price of $70,000 each. While it's "unlikely" that NHTSA will discover anything, Musk wrote, Tesla will retrofit those cars to improve their safety if necessary. Meanwhile, in a bid to further reassure drivers, it's changing its warranty to cover fire damage...just in case.

Lindsay Abrams

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Electric Cars Elon Musk Nhtsa Tesla