New Tesla Fires, Old Volt Ones Explained, Not Absolved

Published November 1, 2013

Tesla‘s once-Teflon Elon Musk, the adored Paypal/SpaceX/electric-car innovator who’s been showered with unmitigated media praise and highly inflated stock values, has another lithium ion battery fire to explain.

This one happened after a Model S crash in Mexico. The last one happened less than a month ago in Kent, Wash. Since then Tesla’s share price has fallen from $193.90 on Sept. 30 to $160.58 this afternoon. The irrational exuberance that made the electric automaker the darling of Wall Street has now become merely excitable, although still unjustifiably so. Even Musk himself told Bloomberg last week, “The stock price that we have is more than we have any right to deserve.”

While the fanboy fave exhibited a measure of humility about Tesla’s stock market prestige, the two fires have not moved the needle in that respect. The official stance the company took in both cases was, in essence, “we are glad the drivers did not die. Our safety features had a lot to do with that.”

It’s become obvious that nothing riles the nerves of top executives in the electric vehicle industry as much as lithium ion battery fires do. When Fisker Automotive faced similar incidents in Texas and California last year, the corporate spin emphasized how many miles its electric Karmas had traveled without such incidents, that fires happen in gas-powered cars too, and that nobody was hurt. Your garage may have burned down, but hey, at least you don’t have any hospital bills!

In the case of General Motors and fires in its Chevy Volt, both corporate and governmental authorities that have advocated electric vehicle adoption exhibited skittish behavior after such incidents. As NLPC colleague Mark Modica reported two years ago, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration waited six months to notify the public of a Chevy Volt that burst into flames three weeks after it was crash-tested. And in separate residential garage fires in Connecticut and North Carolina that involved Volts, GM deployed its own rapid respondersto investigate. Then…no conclusive findings from the investigations were reported afterward. Were the Volts the cause, or not?

In Barkhamsted, Conn., authorities ultimately cleared the homeowner’s Volt as the cause of the fire. Storm Connors, who also owned a Suzuki Samarai that he converted to electric as well, said a number of items could have been the culprit (electrical wiring, candles, discarded ashes, and oily rags were also in the garage).

“The Volt was ruled out as the cause both in the post-fire investigation and by the first responding firemen who observed the fire more intense on the left side of the garage — the Volt being on the right,” Mr. Connors told NLPC in an email. 

“The investigators also did a thorough evaluation of the charging system for the Suzuki electric conversion and found no evidence of an electrical problem. No cause was officially determined. I do have my suspicions as to the cause, but I don’t think exposing my guesses would serve any purpose. For the record, I did purchase a replacement Volt which I keep in the rebuilt garage.”

The cause of the Nov. 2011 North Carolina garage fire was also a mystery, although Iredell Co. fire marshal Garland Cloer early-on said the Volt was unlikely the cause, based on his experience – not scientific observation. Nevertheless the incident was the subject of numerous studies that involved dozens of investigators from GM and various agencies and insurers. Over the past 20 months NLPC has periodically checked with Mr. Cloer about the findings, and finally last month he said via email the NC fire’s cause was also inconclusive:

“After a year of numerous joint investigations by electrical, mechanical engineers and fire investigators; we could not produce conclusive results as to the cause of the fire. Erie Insurance spent thousands of dollars on evidence storage and examination including x-raying approximately one hundred and fifty (150) forty-five (45) gallon plastic totes of fire debris from the garage floor. Any unexplained items and all electrical components in the totes were examined by hand for unusual activity.

“We modeled a potential scenario involving a charging system from a large hobby helicopter. The homeowner had connected a charging system with lithium-polymer batteries to the primary battery of a Nissan Armada, which was parked beside the Volt. The charging system connections were too short to reach the garage floor, so the homeowner pulled a fifty-five (55) plastic gallon trash can in front of the Nissan and placed the charger on the container. During the day of the fire, the homeowner removed and replaced an old set of box springs and mattress from a bonus room above the garage and placed the old sleep set in the garage in front of the Volt. The old set was to be disposed of the next day.

“A timeline of the events and data received from various sources including the Volt charging system and the Volt’s VICM ‘black box’ indicated that from the time the helicopter charging system was connected to the Nissan and the fire was visible and noticed by the neighbors there was sufficient enough time for the fire to start. Our unconfirmed theory was the that the helicopter charging system batteries failed and began to burn, igniting the plastic trash can and in turn the radiant heat from the trash can ignited the mattress and box spring which then ignited the surrounding combustibles in the garage.

“The helicopter charging system was in the Area of Origin of the fire, along with the Volt charging system and a central vacuum system (the plastic waste container mentioned above which was the dust storage for that vacuum system) and other components. This scenario was electronically modeled by one the private fire investigators and each time the model indicated that there was enough heat generation to cause complete destruction of the garage and its contents.

“The helicopter and charging system were purchased on line and assembled by the homeowner. After a long search, we were unable recreate the event because we could not locate a similar helicopter or charging system since the original devices were manufactured in China.

“This case has been closed by investigators and is ruled as ‘Undetermined.'”

For an outside opinion, NLPC turned again to Lewis Larsen of Chicago-based Lattice Energy, LLC, an expert who has examined and researched “thermal runaways” in advanced batteries used in many different functions, but especially in electric vehicles and in Boeing‘s new (and troubled) Dreamliner jumbo jets. While he agreed the Volt might deserve to be absolved of blame in the North Carolina fire, he said lithium-based batteries do not:

“My personal opinion is that a battery runaway fire was absolutely the most likely proximate cause of the fire that destroyed the garage and contents,” Larsen told NLPC.

“As to whether it was the Chevy Volt battery pack or the lithium-polymer battery pack of the made-in-China model helicopter that was being charged, I would agree with Mr. Cloer that a thermal runaway of the helicopter battery pack that was being charged while resting on top of a 55 gallon plastic garbage can best fits the facts of the case. Of course, this does not prove that it WASN’T the Volt that did the deed, but it’s very likely that the Volt was innocent in this particular case….

“Low-end (as was probably used in the ‘large model helicopter’) inexpensive lithium-based batteries from China have had really bad safety records with respect to the frequency of thermal runaways,” he added.

The bottom line is that lithium-ion batteries, cheap or expensive, are susceptible to thermal runaways (i.e., “fires”) and are still deep in the trial stage when it comes to transportation functions such as automotive and aviation travel. Taxpayers, via the Obama administration’s “green” stimulus and other government tax breaks and subsidies, have been put on the hook to the tune of billions of dollars for the privilege of such experimentation.

Advocates like Elon Musk point to the Tesla incidents and say “a big chunk of metal” (Washington) or “big collision” (Mexico) caused the fires, and that gas-powered vehicles might have caught fire too. The difference with electric cars is that the lithium-ion batteries are enormous, and when they undergo stress, the heat from their fires burns extremely hot, and traditional suppressants do not work on them.

Back when he was flying high, Musk felt so good about himself that he intruded into Boeing’s business by offering help with the disastrous Dreamliner shutdown earlier this year. Calling Boeing’s lithium ion battery packs “inherently unsafe,” he boasted that neither Tesla or SpaceX ever had fires, despite “fly(ing) high-capacity lithium-ion battery packs in our rockets and spacecraft, which are subject to much higher loads than commercial aircraft and have to function all the way from sea level air pressure to vacuum.”

Two Model S fires in less than a month have knocked Musk down to earth, while Tesla’s stock has been brought back into this planet’s atmosphere. Despite the Volt findings and the Tesla causes, all is not right in the electric transportation sector and taxpayers ought not to be forced into financing the speculation.

[Originally published on the National Legal and Policy Center]