A person holds up a Panasonic lithium ion battery, which serves as the basis of Tesla Model S' car battery, and thus the source of controversy in recent weeks due to car fires. (Image Source: Reuters)
Today, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) accepted an offer by Elon Musk to investigate Tesla Motors after a series of fires caused by exploding car batteries following accidents. Three fires occurred over a period of five weeks, all with Tesla's Model S car. Many have raised concerns that the safety of the Model S is not as great as claimed, especially given that the car batteries were consistently the cause of the fire. However, coverage concerning these accidents seems to be overblown, and are perhaps a combination of investor's jittery attitudes, and a deep-seated distrust over electric cars, a radical departure from today's gas-powered cars.
This is not to say that car fires are serious. The three car fires that occurred essentially destroyed the vehicles in question, and all were caused by the same problem: Metallic debris puncturing the car battery, which triggered a short circuit that led to the battery catching fire and/or exploding. However, the problem with making a big deal with them is that such instances occur in gas cars quite frequently: The equivalent incident, a "fuel tank fire," occurs about 150,000 times a year in gas cars.
Due to the placement of the fuel tank, often the rear of the vehicle, gasoline-powered cars tend catch fire in a way that often result in injury, even death, for the driver and passengers. The Tesla Model S, which has its car battery placed towards the front, also has additional plating to protect the driver and passengers in the event of a fire, as well as a computer-based warning system that notifies the driver and passengers to exit the vehicle in case something goes wrong. As a consequence, all three accidents had no fatalities, compared to several hundred for gas cars.
The response to Tesla may in part be due to shareholder jitters. The electric car as a viable form of transportation for individuals has yet to reach a level of maturity and saturation that trigger-happy investors feel comfortable with. Sell-offs have occurred in all three fires, the third leading to a more permanent drop. This is in spite of the NHTSA giving the Tesla Model S its highest safety ratings back in August 2013.
It remains to be seen if the investigation will yield anything that will harm or comfort investors and supporters of the electric car. But, these fires seem minor in the grand scheme of Tesla's agenda.