Hard to Take the German Absolution of Tesla Fires Seriously

Published December 5, 2013

Following incidents in Washington state, Mexico and Tennessee, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it would probe fires that occurred recently over a six week period in Tesla Motors‘ electric Model S.

And this week, as revealed in a Detroit News story, the NHTSA looks like they’re serious – at least more serious than Germany’s transportation safety authority.

Why bring up Germany? Because as the regulatory heat bears down in the U.S. on Tesla and high-profile CEO Elon Musk, they have trotted out the Eastern Europe nation to demonstrate that they’ve been absolved of any culpability in the fires. The media that has mostly fawned over the electric automaker helpfully amplified the development, which certainly Musk welcomed. He even got a slight recovery in the company stock price as a result.

On Monday Tesla posted a press release that claimed the company received an inquiry from the German Federal Motor Transport Authority about the three fires. While the NHTSA seems intent on conducting a thorough investigation (I’ll get to those details momentarily), the Germans have already wrapped up their inquiry! The result: After Tesla provided “data and additional information” and the Germans “reviewed Tesla’s responses to their inquiries,” they determined that “no manufacturer-related defects could be found. Therefore, no further measures under the German Product Safety Act are deemed necessary.”

Tesla posted a copy of the letter from the German Transport Authority – which is addressed to what appears to be the company’s local legal counsel – with the translation into English in the press release. Four things beg for explanation:

  • The letter is dated Nov. 27, which is only about three weeks after the most recent fire. Such a rapid conclusion to an inquiry would seem to be a new record for governmental efficiency looking into complicated, sensitive matters such as this.
  • The letter references a phone call earlier in the day with the attorney. What was that discussion about, that the Transport Authority immediately issued its exculpatory letter the same day?
  • Tesla blacked out the identity and contact information of the Transport Authority representative who wrote the letter. Why?
  • It’s apparent the German authority depended only on limited information supplied to it by Tesla (“According to the documents, no manufacturer-related defects could be found”). So it’s hard to give their “investigation” much credibility.

Compare that to what the US NHTSA is asking for. As the Detroit Newsreported Tuesday, the safety agency has requested that Tesla turn over detailed records of all consumer complaints, field reports, warranty claims and property damage claims related to the fires.

“Describe in detail all possible consequences to the vehicle from an impact to the subject component that damages the battery,” wrote NHTSA vehicle integrity chief D. Scott Yon. “Describe in detail how these possible consequences were addressed in the design of the (Model S) and the limits of that design to prevent damage to the propulsion battery, stalling and fires.”

The newspaper reported that Yon also asked for the results of all Tesla’s tests, studies, and investigations to review the battery fires and the alleged defect, and information about whether Tesla made any changes to the Model S to address the possible defect of roadway debris sparking fires in the battery packs. He also wants detailed records of vehicles at the time of the incidents, owner contact information, and all communication to owners or regional officers that the company plans to issue in the next four months.

The letter was dated November 27, and Tesla has until January 14 to respond. That’s about 50 days just to gather the information – more than twice as long as it took the Germans to collect, analyze and conclude their “inquiry” that “cleared” Tesla.

Tesla has carefully controlled information that’s been released about the fires, including statements from the Model S owners. For the most part media reports have derived from these. It makes you wonder if there is some sort of non-disclosure agreement between the company and its vehicle owners.

For example, in early October – shortly after the first fire in Kent, Wash. – Musk posted an essay on Tesla’s blog that explained how the Model S “struck a large metal object” that caused damage.

“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,” Musk explained. “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.”

Maybe so, but for all the physical explanations Musk has tried to present, no photos of the large metal object have been produced. Nor are there any pictures – that are reasonably findable on the Web, at least – of the tow hitch that was accused of causing the Model S fire in Tennessee. In such a hotly scrutinized case you’d think Musk would be parading the evidence if it existed, but he hasn’t.

In the same blog post Musk went to great lengths to argue a conventional gasoline powered car, in the same circumstances, could have experienced a far worse fate.

“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,” he wrote.

But the crash data doesn’t support that. As Justin Hyde of Yahoo!’s automotive Web site Motoramic wrote in early November, “Even though it has fewer electric cars on the road than its competitors (such as the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf), none have reported similar fires after crashes. And while liquid-fueled vehicles suffer about 170,000 such fires every year, federal data show they take place in only 0.1 percent of all crashes.”

Tesla’s control freakishness is also reflected in how the Model S owners who were fire victims. Has any independent journalist interviewed them? Below Musk’s blog post was a portion of an email exchange between Tesla’s vice president for sales and service and Rob Carlson, the Washington driver. The VP’s missive came off as a carefully crafted (lawyered?) explanation of how the fire occurred and that the Model S’s safety protections “operated correctly.” In reply, Carlson supported Tesla’s response to the incident and said, “I am still a big fan of your car and look forward to getting back into one.” Then he revealed that he is an investor in Tesla – so certainly a critical response on his part would not have helped the value of the shares he owns!

While not exactly tanking, Musk likely felt some anxiety (and investor pressure) when the company’s stock dropped from almost $200 earlier this year to about $120 the last couple of weeks, after the fires. Publicly Musk has said Tesla’s share price was overpriced anyway (he’s right), but at the same time, what executive wants to see a rapid drop like he’s seen? Not a moment too soon, this week he discovered a way to turn the German “inquiry” of the Model S fires into a Wall Street bump – the stock is up to almost $139 this morning.

As for the American investigation, time – and a serious examination – will tell whether Tesla needs to revisit its Model S design or not. Before the fires NHTSA still gave it a top safety rating, which seemed more like it wasjoining the irrational exuberance party rather than an accurate evaluation. The signs point to the agency taking this a lot more seriously than the Germans did, but then again, this is the Obama administrationwe’re talking about, which has relentlessly protected and subsidized the electric vehicle industry.

[Originally posted on the National Legal and Policy Center]