Cars

Published on November 10th, 2013 | by Zachary Shahan

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Story About How The Tesla Model S Deals With Extreme Damage & Communicates With The Driver

November 10th, 2013 by  

As we’ve written previously, Tesla Model S fires get an inordinate amount of attention. They are several times less frequent per automobile sold than fires in conventional gasoline-powered cars. But it’s an electric car. And it’s even the Model S. So it gets people talking.

While such occurrences are never desired or fun, Tesla Model S owners and prospective owners around the country are probably happy to hear how well the Model S performs in such a situation. To make that more evident to more people, Tesla yesterday published an article by the Tennessee Model S owner who had the bad fortune of being the driver in a highly unlikely accident and fire, but the good fortune of being a Tesla Model S driver. Here’s the article in full:

model-s-fire-photo

By Juris Shibayama, MD

I was driving home from work on the interstate in the right lane at approximately 70 miles per hour, following a truck. In the middle of the lane, there was a rusty three-pronged trailer hitch that was sticking up with the ball up in the air. The truck in front of me cleared the object. I did not have enough time to swerve to avoid the hitch, and it went below my car. I felt a firm “thud” as the hitch struck the bottom of the car, and it felt as though it even lifted the car up in the air. My assistant later found a gouge in the tarmac where the item scraped into the road. Somewhat shaken, I continued to drive.

About 30-45 seconds later, there was a warning on the dashboard display saying, “Car needs service. Car may not restart.” I continued to drive, hoping to get home. About one minute later, the message on the dashboard display read, “Please pull over safely. Car is shutting down.” I was able to fully control the car the entire time and safely pulled off the left shoulder on the side of the road. I got out of the car, and started to get all my belongings out. About 5-10 seconds after getting out of the car, smoke started to come from the front underbody of the car. I walked away from the vehicle to a distance of about 100 yards. More smoke started to come out of the bottom of the car, and about two minutes after I walked away, the front of the car caught on fire.

I am thankful to God that I was totally uninjured in any way from this impact. Had I not been in a Tesla, that object could have punched through the floor and caused me serious harm. From the time of impact of the object until the time the car caught fire was about five minutes. During this time, the car warned me that it was damaged and instructed me to pull over. I never felt as though I was in any imminent danger. While driving after I hit the object until I pulled over, the car performed perfectly, and it was a totally controlled situation. There was never a point at which I was anywhere even close to any flames.

The firemen arrived promptly and applied water to the flames. They were about to pry open the doors, so I pressed my key button and the handles presented and everything worked even though the front of the car was on fire. No flames ever reached the cabin, and nothing inside was damaged. I was even able to get my papers and pens out of the glove compartment.

This experience does not in any way make me think that the Tesla Model S is an unsafe car. I would buy another one in a heartbeat.

Juris Shibayama, MD

Image Credit: Tesla





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About the Author

is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the typed word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession, Solar Love, and Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in.



  • CJ MACINTOSH

    I love how car companies will always show a Electric cars bursting into flames but they never show gasoline ones Burning , this would not happen if we’d all be driving electric cars ! ASK PAUL WALKER WHAT HE THINKS ABOUT GASOLINE BURNING CARS NOW , OH WAIT HE’S DEAD FROM BURNING UP IN A GASOLINE POWERED CAR !

    • Bob_Wallace

      It looks like your keyboard broke about halfway through your comment. Suggest you get a new one that doesn’t shout.

  • Jamie Shepherd

    If something large and heavy thwacks the underbelly of your car, and lifts it momentarily into the air, its a really good idea to do an emergency pull over as soon as safely possible. Could be brake cables severed, hydraulics leaking out rapidly, broken steering linkages, deflating tyres, ruptured fuel lines, ANYTHING!! Don’t take a “hope for the best” attitude and wait for the dumb computer to say its feeling unwell.

  • Marion Meads

    The Tesla’s batteries are much much much more prone to fires than the Volt’s. GM engineers have designed the Volt’s batteries very well as well as its placement in the car. Afterall, GM has spent millions of hours and dollars just for the testing, not counting the R&D that preceded the testing. And it shows. Number of fires per total number of accidents, the Tesla has outnumbered the Volt. The NHTSA should thoroughly investigate the achilles heels of Tesla. The placement of batteries at the bottom will be more prone to collisions with road debris, not-so-well maintained roads, and the fact that the battery chemistry itself is prone to fire when punctured. So it should be reinforced and more safety needed to be in place to make it at least at par with Volt’s. Tesla and Tesla fan boys could learn a thing or two from GM.

    • A Real Libertarian

      Marion, why do you hate Tesla so much?

      • Marion Meads

        I do not hate Tesla. Extraordinarily priced products have extraordinary expectations. If GM can make the Volt battery very safe after proven millions of hours of testing and proven by several times more miles and accidents on the road, why can’t Tesla? And the Volt is far cheaper than Tesla. There is no hate, just the real world facts.

        • sranger

          So, you expect the Tesla to survive ANY POSSIBLE impact with a large piece of steel?

          • Marion Meads

            I think it is fair and very reasonable to expect that the more expensive Tesla should be at least comparable to or better than GM Volt when it comes to not catching fire from ANY POSSIBLE impact with a large piece of steel or when involved in any type of accident. Real world data says otherwise.

          • sranger

            Well, the Volt could have caught fire with the same impact, so what is your point?

          • Marion Meads

            Show a real life example. There was none. But Tesla had three fires already. The GM Volt has been in several accidents, simply because it has more of it on the roads, and yet, no fires. The placement of the Volt battery helps a lot, and GM was very proactive in putting more protective crumpling braces around the battery after the simulated incident with NHTSA. Does Tesla want to skimp on the protection so that it would be more profitable?

          • jwtn

            The Tesla has been in several and sever accidents without catching on fire. Cars are not design to drive over large and heavy objects.

          • Bob_Wallace

            U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 152,300 automobile fires per year in 2006-2010. These fires caused an average of 209 civilian deaths, 764 civilian injuries, and $536 million in direct property damage.

            http://www.nfpa.org/safety-information/for-consumers/vehicles

          • jwtn

            I dont understand why these 3 fires are a big deal, this is under predictable situations as a result of sever accidents not a spontaneous defect.

    • sranger

      Any Li battery is likely to catch fire if punctured by a metal object….period…

      However, the Li Cobalt batteries are a little more volatile that the LiFePo4 battery in the Volt.

      • Marion Meads

        A123 during their debut showed a mangled-up Li battery that was punctured by a metallic object and did not show any fire, nor runaway thermal reaction, nor exploded. They are now owned by Chinese after they filed for bankruptcy.

        • sranger

          And I have first hand Knowledge (unfortunately) that a LiFePo4 can and will catch fire if punctured….

          • eject

            it won’t. It might smoke a bit but there is nothing in there that can burn. Maybe the plastic casing if it can get hot enough.

          • A Real Libertarian

            Yes it can burn.

            It’s harder to ignite, but it can burn just fine.

          • sranger

            NO IT WILL BURN…Been there done that…

          • Bob_Wallace

            Please, no shouting. I haven’t had my morning coffee yet.

          • eject

            It won’t. There is nothing that can burn apart from maybe the plastic casing. LiFePO4 is not a Li-poly battery. Iron phosphate does not burn.

            Shoot a nail trough it, shitloads of smoke (actually it is vapor).

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMARDvMz62A

            No fire. I would think you had another type of battery but not a LiFePO4

          • eject

            you can also shorten out the LiFePO4 and it will rupture after over heating. It won’t burn.

            http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p21iZVFHEZk

          • sranger

            Nope. The Electrolyte will indeed burn at around 900 degrees… I have seen it personally…

          • Marion Meads

            if you saw it personally from one crappy company, it doesn’t mean it should be true for all as exemplified by undeniable proof already shown or mentioned.

          • sranger

            You can say ANYTHING you like, but I have see the fire before my eyes so I KNOW that you are wrong…

          • Marion Meads

            We do not dispute what you saw before your eyes, we simply trust you on your word, and yes some Li batteries made by Panasonic for example, have caught fire, from laptops to Teslas. Your generalization about all Li batteries being flammable or catching fire when punctured with metallic object is dead wrong, however. You simply to continue to refuse to believe that some companies out there can produce Li batteries that do not catch fire on impact. We have shown you pics proving that there are many Li batteries out there that did not burn as you claimed that they all burn on impact or punctured with a metallic object. So we have convincingly proven that you are wrong in your generalization about Li batteries.

          • A Real Libertarian

            sranger: “is likely to catch fire”.

            You: “you claimed that they all burn on impact or punctured with a metallic object”.

            Me: Please read what they said before telling they’re wrong.

          • Marion Meads

            Reading carefully, and if my buffer hasn’t changed, sranger upgraded his statement to: “NO IT WILL BURN…Been there done that…”

          • A Real Libertarian

            He said it was capable of burning. And it is.

          • Marion Meads

            Because you’d seen one, you’ve seen all, from all manufacturers? Maybe the company that you used to work for makes crappy unsafe Li battery packs that burns by simple prodding of metallic object. Have you seen at least one commercially available Li battery product from A123 that has burned?

      • Marion Meads

        Here’s another one from Envia, nail penetration, not even a smoke!

        http://enviasystems.com/pop_npi_envia_01.htm

    • eject

      Tesla made this choice well in the knowledge that the Cobalt oxide (CoO2) Li polymer technology is prone to fire. LiFePO4 does not burn, however, the power density would be a joke. Tesla pulls well over 300kW from a 85kWh pack and plans to put 130kW back into it. This can only be done with this volatile chemistry.
      The only thing that is important is that under normal condition the driver is safe.
      You can not account for every freak accident.

      • Philbert De Zwart

        Stronger than that. It turned out that in this freak accident, the driver was perfectly safe.

        • eject

          Yeah but you can not write off cars left right and center or the insurance will be unaffordable. So the pack failing is still a fail.
          It is just not very likely that this will happen outside from freak accidents (so I hope, if it will Tesla has a problem)

  • StefanoR99

    It’s so strange that a big deal is being made of this. Almost seems like there’s certain groups out there who would like to see Tesla fail. Hmm wonder who those could be.

    Thing is, the energy in an EV even one like a Tesla with its huge battery is still only a fraction of what we carry around in gas cars every day (33kw/h per gallon)

    A Tesla has 85kw/h of energy, a conventional gas car has around 660kw/h.

    If you puncture and burn a gas tank, you get a massive explosion – because gas burns FAST. If you puncture and burn a lithium ion cell, you get a the equivalent of a slow burning candle that builds as more and more cells catch fire.

    Tesla really should do a demonstration video comparing the two. Maybe burn an S-Class versus a Model S. Expensive, but would really drive that point home…

    • Bob_Wallace

      The real danger (from personal experience) with gas is that it can first puddle and spread over a large area before something ignites it. The damage area can be quiet large and escaping can be difficult (from personal experience).

      When the Volt battery started a slow smolder days after it was intentionally destroyed in testing the media jumped all over it and make a major issue out of EV battery fires. I won’t go so far as to suggest that oil interests were behind that, but I do feel it likely that with most media outlets now owned by conservative corporations the reporters/editors they employ “supported the team” and dumps on hippie-tech.

      Like the hit piece the NYT ran on Tesla’s range the media seems to go out of its way to damage EVs/PHEVs. Perhaps that’s to make their angry old men readers happy.

      • StefanoR99

        Yeah I still don’t get why the NYT did that. It’s like Tesla somehow got associated with the current administration and became a political target. Certain groups want to see it go down the pan just to say “told you so” rather than cheer on a great new car company providing domestic jobs.

        You’d think that getting the world off of oil would be an issue that brings everyone together on the same page, but instead we’ve got people who are fighting, kicking and screaming against change. I dunno, maybe they are all major shareholders in big oil, coal, gas and nuke… :S

        • Steeple

          I live in Houston, which is oil company central. I have seen plenty of Teslas around here, and there is a lot of respect from the people I chat with for what Tesla has done. There are still questions about how these will be maintained, etc… But I don’t know anyone who is kicking or screaming against a technical marvel like this product. Just one perspective.

          • Bob_Wallace

            What do you mean by “how these will be maintained, etc.”?

          • Steeple

            Who will do any necessary repairs, etc… Usually haing a dealer network is the catalyst for this service. And I recognize they will need less service, but it won’t be zero service.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Ah…

            Here’s a list of current Tesla service centers. Three in TX – Austin, Dallas, Houston.

            http://www.teslamotors.com/findus

          • Steeple

            Thanks; I should have checked first

          • StefanoR99

            Just look at comments certain news sites whenever Tesla is mentioned. It’s very depressing and their uniformity suggests that these comments are being paid for… but who knows.

          • Steeple

            When Consumer Reports gives the recommendation it did, that is strong stuff and tough to rebut.

          • StefanoR99

            Definitely. Nearly all decent publications give it excellent reviews, usually because they are being driven by people who are nuts about cars.

            The Tesla is a car that’s really hard NOT to love. The sensational news stories and their paid for comments are that much more annoying because of it.

  • Will E

    to avoid car on fire
    build in a co2 pressure tank with a detecting device.. when there is a fire the co2 will automatically stop the fire. easy cheap, build it in on all tesla cars, and there will be no more tesla cars on fire.
    the technic is used on ships. all ships have a co2 room to avoid fire on the ship.

    • eject

      If you damage the cells i.e. break the electrolyte so that anode and cathode are not separated anymore the cell will burn by it own means. It does not need the oxygen in the air to do so.
      It could however stop the fire from spreading. Problem is that you would need to be able to provide the protective CO2 for however long the reaction goes on. That could be minutes up to hours. So this is not practical.

      • Bob_Wallace

        Sounds like Tesla will have to add a/strengthen the bottom cover for the battery pack. Some sort of kevlar/carbon fiber-wonder material stuff.
        The second fire, a major wreck, that’s expected. Same thing would be likely with a gasmobile.

        • RobS

          The first fire was after an impact with a large curved truck fender with a jagged end, the physics of that being levered up into the underbody is terrifying. The third fire followed an impact with a three prong tow hitch http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/61aOPZ2jLRL._SL1200_.jpg It’s hard to imagine an object more likely to cause damage in a debris collision. They may have to add/strengthen the battery armor but I think it will be for PR reasons because these were freak collisions that probably no amount of practical armor could fully protect against.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I’ve been driving on roads and highways for 57 years and I’ve never encountered a large piece of metal like these two Teslas hit.

            I’ve seen debris at crash sites, but at that point I’m driving slow and steering around stuff of any size.

            Two events – very weird. The stuff you describe is pretty large and should have been quiet visible.

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