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NHTSA to Investigate Tesla Model S Fires

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Tesla Model S

Tesla Model S

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has announced it will investigate the Tesla Model S sedan, following fires that occurred this year after two of the sporty hatchbacks hit road debris, writes Jerry Hirsch for the Los Angeles Times. NHTSA will not investigate a third reported fire because it occurred in Mexico, outside the agency’s jurisdiction, he notes.

The fires NHTSA will look into happened in Seattle and Nashville — accidents in which the battery casing that serves as the car’s undercarriage cracked open, Hirsch writes. The agency was unable to conduct an investigation when the first fire occurred because the government was in shutdown at that time, as this blog has reported. On Oct. 24, NHTSA said it found no evidence that the first fire resulted from defects or violations of U.S. safety standards, writes Angela Greiling Keane for Bloomberg.

Tesla Chief Executive Office Elon Musk has announced that Tesla “already wirelessly sent orders to the computers of all Model S electric cars on the road to adjust the suspension so they ride higher on the highway and are less likely to take a hit from debris,” reports Chris Woodyard for USA Today. Tesla is also extending its warranty to include fire damage, he writes.

Musk defended the car in blog posts and tweets to “aggressively address” the fire issue, writes Woodyard. Tesla Motors is trying to keep its momentum going after impressive sales of the electric car that, as this blog has reported, was given Consumer Reports‘ highest safety rating ever for a luxury sedan, and won Motor Trend magazine’s Car of the Year award. It also received the highest possible ratings in NHTSA’s crash tests, notes Keane.

Regarding Musk’s response to the announcement of the NHTSA investigation, Woodyard writes:

Brash as always, he wrote that Tesla has invited the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to fully examine its cars. NHTSA shot back in a statement that it doesn’t work by invitation. ‘NHTSA’s decision to open any formal investigation is an independent process,’ the agency said, adding that it followed standard procedure.

Musk said the fact that no one was injured in the Washington and Tennessee fires is proof of the car’s safety, Woodyard writes. The driver in the Mexico Tesla fire also escaped unharmed, he notes. Musk wrote on his blog: “Since the Model S went into production mid last year, there have been over 400 deaths and 1,200 serious injuries in the United States alone due to gasoline car fires, compared to zero deaths and zero injuries due to Tesla fires anywhere in the world,” as Woodyard reports.

There are some who criticize Musk’s aggressive approach to the fire issue, as Woodyard notes:

‘They are acting as if this problem is going to put them out of business,’ says Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety. He says Tesla needs to realize it has a problem and face it head-on. ‘The way to handle it isn’t to stonewall, it’s to recall.’

There are more than 19,000 Model S sedans on the road, which cost buyers from $70,000 to more than $100,000, writes Keane. She writes that NHTSA previously investigated fires in two other electric cars: the hybrid electric General Motors Co. (GM)’s Chevrolet Volt, and Fisker Automotive Inc.’s Karma plug-in. “The Karma was recalled and GM voluntarily reinforced the battery packs on Volts, after one caught fire following a NHTSA crash test,” Keane writes.

Tesla is expected to sell approximately 20,000 cars this year, Woodyard writes. Colorado got its first Tesla charging station in September, in Summit County, as this blog has reported.


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