No Injuries In Tesla Model S Fire — Contained In Front Trunk, As Designed (& Putting This Fire Into Perspective)

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Whether you love them or not, electric cars are one of the hot cleantech consumer products that incite people to take notice and make their thoughts known. People comment about electric vehicles a lot. They are green chic. Come on, who does not want a Tesla.

Point of fact: over 180,000 vehicles catch fire on average every year in United States. But a few days ago, a car fire near Seattle (in which not one person was injured) got an abnormal amount of attention. Why all the attention to this one? Because this car was a new, shiny Tesla Model S. Disregard the other 180,000+ car fires this year — this one was a Tesla.

Some passing travelers caught the blaze in this video.

As they reflect on the fire, “I can feel the heat in here. Oh shit dude, that’s a Tesla.” Not sure if it is the blaze or the Tesla that provoked the astonishment in this passersby more.

Tesla is intent on making electric vehicles mainstream. It’s Model S has achieved the highest safety rating ever given in North America, and it has won “best car of the year” awards from several of the top automobile magazines, as well as numerous other accolades. Yet, the fire sparked a debate about electric car batteries that we somehow don’t have about flammable gas tanks sitting under our butts as we drive.

Tesla’s stock has dropped as a result, which goes to show how fickle the stock market can be. Tesla of course issued a statement on the Model S fire, noting that the car hit something hard and metal in the middle of the road and that the driver was alerted of the fire risk and told to pull over and exit the car. Also noted was the fact that the fire didn’t spread to the passenger compartment.

Here’s part of the statement from CEO Elon Musk:

Earlier this week, a Model S traveling at highway speed struck a large metal object, causing significant damage to the vehicle. 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. 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.

The Model S owner was nonetheless able to exit the highway as instructed by the onboard alert system, bring the car to a stop and depart the vehicle without injury. A fire caused by the impact began in the front battery module – the battery pack has a total of 16 modules – but was contained to the front section of the car by internal firewalls within the pack. Vents built into the battery pack directed the flames down towards the road and away from the vehicle.

When the fire department arrived, they observed standard procedure, which was to gain access to the source of the fire by puncturing holes in the top of the battery’s protective metal plate and applying water. For the Model S lithium-ion battery, it was correct to apply water (vs. dry chemical extinguisher), but not to puncture the metal firewall, as the newly created holes allowed the flames to then vent upwards into the front trunk section of the Model S. Nonetheless, a combination of water followed by dry chemical extinguisher quickly brought the fire to an end.

It is important to note that the fire in the battery was contained to a small section near the front by the internal firewalls built into the pack structure. At no point did fire enter the passenger compartment.

While a lot has been made of this fire, something that I think should really be emphasized more is the wonderful detection and notification system in the Model S that allowed the driver to patiently and easily exit the vehicle without harm, and that also contained the fire to a portion of the battery pack. Nonetheless, humans are not always logical when it comes to such matter. Autoblog Green explains: “Electric vehicle fires – whether they be in China or the US, started while moving or stopped – often become comment fodder, even when we learn after the fact that the electric part of the powertrain has nothing to do with the blaze.”

Autoblog Green also offered up the statistic noted at the top of this article: “For the record, there were 187,500 ‘highway vehicle fires‘ in the US in 2011 (the last year for which data is available), according to the National Fire Prevention Association.”

Nonetheless, while this fire didn’t harm anyone, it may have had a bigger impact in the financial and automotive world than any other automobile fire this year. Jalopnik’s sensational headline, “This Is What Fiery Tesla Model S Death Looks Like,” got the story going, and from there it took off like….

Unfortunately, automobile accidents are a part of basically everyone’s lives in the US. This is another good incentive to get off the highway and take the metro, but many of us don’t have a metro in our region, and many others won’t heed the advice anyway. And, still, I want a Tesla, or another electric car. The fire was solely in the front trunk area. The driver was notified of the risk and safely beyond before it burst into flames. No one else was hit.

As Elon Musk added, such an occurrence in a gasoline-powered vehicle might not turn out so well.

Had a conventional gasoline car encountered the same object on the highway, the result could have been far worse. 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. In contrast, the combustion energy of our battery pack is only about 10% of the energy contained in a gasoline tank and is divided into 16 modules with firewalls in between. As a consequence, the effective combustion potential is only about 1% that of the fuel in a comparable gasoline sedan.

For consumers concerned about fire risk, there should be absolutely zero doubt that it is safer to power a car with a battery than a large tank of highly flammable liquid.

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Cynthia Shahan

Cynthia Shahan, started writing after previously doing research and publishing work on natural birth practices. Words can be used improperly depending on the culture you are in. (Several unrelated publications) She has a degree in Education, Anthropology, Creative Writing, and was tutored in Art as a young child thanks to her father the Doctor.

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15 thoughts on “No Injuries In Tesla Model S Fire — Contained In Front Trunk, As Designed (& Putting This Fire Into Perspective)

  • Note that there is minor error in Elon Musk’s statement: Tesla has absolutely no data to claim that one Tesla fire occurs at every 100 megamiles. Elon cannot make this conclusion from single case, and it was very probably a freak accident that should not happen.

    Anyway the daily collective Tesla mileage increases exponentially and we should have soon enough statistic to see how often Teslas are catching fire on accident conditions.

    There is however important to note that when electric vehicles reaches the end of their life span, the fire risk may increase as cells gets more unstable. But it will take several years before we have data from the old electric vehicles. And probably we will never have this data, because EV technology evolves faster than cars get older.

    • The cells DO NOT get more unstable with age…. If anything they would be more stable as they would have less energy in them…

      Also statistic prove that the risk of fire goes up a as ICE vehicles age.. Mainly due to lose fuel lines, fitting and brittle rubber.

      • all battery fires are due to short circuits and as battery pack gets old the probability for short circuit gets up, as things tend to break down when they get old.

        • That is completely false with lithium ion batteries. You may be thinking about the way the lead plates in lead acid batteries short out. This does not happen as Li batteries age….

          • no i am thinking that there is physical damage occurred into wirings. It is not about the cells themselves but that there are thousands of cells wired into series and parallel. Battery pack takes very much damage from bumps and corrosion during the 10 year life time and some times the last heavy hit may be the last straw.

            It does not require major short circuit when battery catches fire and then fire easily escalates into nearby cells.

    • ” Tesla has absolutely no data to claim that one Tesla fire occurs at every 100 megamiles.”

      Do you have the data to confirm it is false? Tesla sold more than 13.000 model S, the 100 million miles number isn’t as absurd as you claim it to be.

      • yes, there is only one fire event. In order to be meaningful data, there must be at least 10–20 fire events.

        • Oh, i understand your point and at the same time i also have to agree with Elon Musk. I mean, with the current data the 100 million figure is all you can get. Would be interesting to compare numbers with other electric cars, or the overall electric market.

          • Sometime back Tesla Ss passed the cumulative 80 million mile mark.

            There have been only two EV fire events other than the Tesla that ran over a piece of steel in the road which punctured the battery pack.

            A BYD e6 was hit by a gasmobile which was traveling over 100 miles per hour. The crash started a short in the car’s electrical system which set interior fabric on fire. The fire eventually spread to the battery pack but only part of the batteries burned.

            A Chevy Volt was intentionally wrecked during safety testing. Following the wreck the battery pack was not properly disconnected/secured as should be done with any vehicle battery. Some hours (days?) later a smoldering fire started.

            Last year there were over 170,000 gasmobile fires in the US.

          • Another Tesla fire after a crash. This time in Mexico. Fire was again limited into front section of battery pack:


  • The modules are the same rationale behind the gas cells of Zeppelins, or the many watertight bulkheads of a battleship. Personally, I’d take the modules over putting your entire (highly flammable) energy source in one tank.


    • TED You are just too silly!!!!!!!

  • With respect to the statement “it was correct to apply water” to the burning lithium ion battery, is neither the best nor safest method to extinguish a fire associated with these batteries. Water introduces a host of other potential problems not to mention conductivity! Check out the NFPA and experts in the battery industry for proper extinguishing material & methods.

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