NHTSA to Investigate Tesla Fires as Battery Facts Remain Elusive

Published November 25, 2013

After three recent fires, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk said he asked the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to investigate its Model S.

NHTSA said no he didn’t.

Tesla has been saying it received the highest safety rating in the U.S., a “new combined record of 5.4 stars.”

NHTSA says there’s no such thing.

Musk said he expects the investigation will clear Tesla after incidents in which metal objects struck the underside where the Model S battery is located.

NHTSA says we’ll see, and a decision whether there should be a recall will likely take months. Maybe a lie detector test needs to be part of the study.

Musk thought he had averted scrutiny after the first fire in Washington state last month, when NHTSA declined to investigate the cause. Then another fire followed a collision in Mexico, and another blaze ignited in Tennessee a couple weeks ago after a Model S struck debris in the road (allegedly).

Musk doesn’t think it’s fair that Tesla has received so much negative media attention when there are hundreds of fires every year in gasoline-powered vehicles.

“Musk described the weeks since the fires as ‘torture,'” the Associated Press reported Friday. “He said the crashes have received an unreasonable amount of media attention given that no one was injured and the passenger compartments remained intact. He understands that a new technology such as electric cars will get more scrutiny, ‘but not to the insane degree that we’re receiving.'”

The reason for the insanity – or, at least the reason there should be insanity – is the fact that Tesla is trying to build its business on the backs of taxpayers and government distortion of free markets, rather than on the merits of its automotive product. Sure, Musk had the company repay its $465 million loan from the Department of Energy‘s stimulus stash, but as NLPC has reported Tesla has vacuumed up millions of dollars in California zero-emissions credits it has sold to other vehicle manufacturers. The company also enjoys advantages such as the buyer’s federal tax credit for each vehicle, state tax credits and incentives, subsidies for battery manufacturers, and perks to offer buyers (who aremostly rich Californians) such as the use of high-occupancy highway lanes.

So for a company so dependent on a government that mandates your product and taxpayers who subsidize it, you can expect “insane” scrutiny when you hit some glitches. After all, Americans are coerced “investors.” In addition, President Obama‘s new Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has held up Tesla as a successful product of DOE’s Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing loan program, and thus plans to revive the program that had received horrible publicity thanks to the failures of Vehicle Production Group and Fisker. The future of DOE’s electric vehicle “investments” has a lot to do with whether Tesla is viable or not.

But for all the brilliance and innovation that Musk has accumulated to his credit – leading tech pioneers such as Paypal and SpaceX – he obviously doesn’t get that with public money comes extra accountability. He enjoyed the attention earlier this year when the accolades came one after another, such as “safest car of all time” and Consumer Reports‘ label as(almost) “the best car ever.” Wall Street pumped up the stock price near $200 with its two (alleged) profitable quarters in a row and $20 billion market capitalization. A seemingly lone voice – John Petersen of SeekingAlpha.com – sought to bring some sanity to the overwrought hype about Tesla’s value that even Musk has said was unjustified, and was promptly hammered by critics for his negativity.

A little over a month later came the first fire. It’s been downhill since. The share price fell to $121.38 upon Friday’s closing, and whereas Musk was happy to feed the positivity pump, he is dismayed at the attention now. Even when he tried to put a happy spin on the NHTSA investigation by saying Tesla asked for it, he was quickly refuted by the agency.

“The swift rebuttal of Mr. Musk underscores how Tesla’s relentless promotional campaign is wearing thin on regulators charged with making the nation’s vehicles and roadways safe,” the New York Times reported.

Another reason to doubt Musk is the claim that the two Model S fires in the U.S. were caused by running over debris in the road. In Washington a “large metallic object” allegedly triggered the event, and in Tennessee the culprit was said to be a trailer hitch. The only problem is, while there have been plenty of photos distributed of the charred Model S’s in the media and online, no pictures have been revealed of the alleged “perpetrators” (or “penetrators”): the “debris.”

“If that incident had occurred exactly as Tesla has theorized (near-instantaneous impalement of the battery pack by a 3″ diameter sharp metallic object), in my opinion the car would have been instantly disabled (no chance to keep driving for another 2 – 3 minutes to get off the main highway, park, and exit the vehicle without injury) and might even have detonated the battery pack…,” wrote Lattice Energy’s Lewis Larsen, a physicist who has been a frequent critic of companies that depend on the viability of lithium ion batteries, in an email.

“Why hasn’t Tesla held a news conference and Elon Musk conducted a public ‘perp walk’ with the guilty piece of highway debris that they initially claimed had been recovered by a Washington Dept. of Transportation road crew that had been working in the area at the time of the incident?” he added.

In both incidents Tesla released statements that emphasized the battery fires were not “spontaneous,” which speaks to the company’s concern about the reputation for lithium ion technology’s “thermal runaway.” Larsen said if Musk really wanted to debunk that suspicion, then he would have employed his massive resources to hold up the offending debris for the world to see. That didn’t happen.

Unusual behavior and circumstances have surrounded fires that have occurred with electric vehicles and Boeing‘s lithium-ion battery-dependent Dreamliner. In the case of two Chevy Volt residential garage fires in Connecticut and North CarolinaGeneral Motors (as well as local officials and insurance companies) deployed teams that took over a year to investigate, only to determine the cause of the fires were “inconclusive.”In fires that involved the Fisker Karma, the company quickly emphasized their battery was not the cause and in the case of a Houston-area fire,suggested the vehicle owner might be to blame.

And with the case of the broadly publicized Boeing 787 fires, which shut down production of the newfangled airliner for months earlier this year, a company official concluded that it “almost doesn’t matter” what caused the fires as it announced a new “fix” for the undetermined problem.

Transparency, honesty and conclusive findings have been mostly absent from lithium ion battery incidents that affect the transportation sector. Taxpayers have been forced to heavily “invest” in this stuff and they deserve the truth.

[Originally published on the National Legal and Policy Center]