Tesla Model S Charge Port Door -- U.S. Spec

Tesla Fire: Why We Need To Keep Some Perspective

It’s every EV advocate’s worst nightmare: a short YouTube video showing an electric car in flames at the side of the road. Worse still, the car on fire is a Tesla Model S.

European Tesla Model S

European Tesla Model S

On Tuesday, that’s exactly what happened, when a Tesla Model S caught fire at an intersection in Seattle, Washington. As with every other news story, video of the fire soon found its way onto YouTube

By referencing official statements from the Washington State Police, the local fire department and Tesla Motors, we now have a pretty good idea of the sequence of events which led to the fire. Here’s what we know so far.

  • On Tuesday morning around 8:18 am local time, a Tesla Model S was driving southbound along state route 167 when it collided with a large metal object. Police reports and transcripts of the 911 call say the collision occured in the HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane.
  • Immediately following the collision, the car alerted its driver to pull over to the side of the road. The transcript of the 911 call also reports the driver as saying the car started to ‘run poorly.’
  • As he was pulling off the freeway at the offramp with Willis Street, Seattle, the driver reported a burning smell coming from his car. He exited the vehicle and called 911.
  • Shortly afterwards, a fire started at the front of the vehicle.
  • Pump E71 from the local fire department arrived on scene and reported that the car “appeared to have an engine compartment fire.”
  • Breaking the driver’s side window to gain access to the interior of the car, firefighters then proceeded to attempt to extinguish the fire using water.
  • When the fire appeared to worsen, firefighters switched to a dry chemical extinguisher, which put out “the majority of the fire.”
  • To access the part of the car which was still on fire, firefighters first tried to dismantle the front of the car to gain access to “what appeared to be a battery pack in the front end of the vehicle that continued to burn.” The official fire report states that the crew “had to puncture multiple holes into the pack to apply water to the burning material in the battery.”
  • Firefighters then  lifted the front of the Model S up, and used a circular saw to cut an access hold in the car’s front structural member to apply more water to the battery pack, eventually extinguishing the fire.
  • No-one sustained any injuries as a result of the accident or the blaze, although the relevant offramp and intersection were blocked for the duration of the incident.
  • The fire was contained to the front and outside of the car. No fire damage was sustained to the interior or the rear of the car.

Right now, we have  no doubt that certain right-leaning news organisations and politicians are preparing to use this video and associated official reports as categoric proof once and for all that electric cars are dangerous. It’s likely too that the same video will form a cornerstone of the argument that plug-in vehicle subsidies are a waste of taxpayer money. But before we fall into the trap of sensationalist reporting, wailing and gnashing of teeth, let us remember a few basic facts.

Firstly, we won’t really know what happened on Tuesday until the Washington State Police, local fire department, Tesla Motors (and any governmental safety bodies if and when they get involved) have finished the prerequisite accident investigations. Speculating on the reason for the fire — even if it appears obvious at this time — is of little consequence.

Secondly, until we know more, any news agency, politician or pundit declaring the Model S as unfit to drive or unsafe is doing so in little more than a knee-jerk reaction.  Like every other car sold in the U.S., the Model S has undergone strict crash testing at the hands of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Moreover, it aced those tests, getting a five out of five scorecard to make it one of the safest cars on the road today.


Third, the real world is vastly more complex than any lab experiment or test can account for. If the reports are accurate and the Model S did indeed hit metal on the freeway, we’re pretty sure crash tests can’t possibly account for this circumstance. On the statistical side of life, it’s about as likely as being hit by lightning.

Fourth, Tesla’s own engineering probably helped prevent the spread of the battery pack fire, even when firefighters appeared confused at first over how to extinguish it.  Inside the Model S battery pack is a gel-like fire retardant which actually expands and solidifies in extreme heat, preventing any fire from spreading to the entire pack. From incident reports obtained since the fire, it seems the rear of the pack was saved.

Finally, it’s worth remembering some good old-fashioned physics and chemistry. As with any form of  densely-stored energy, there is always the potential for a dangerous, explosive release of energy should the container storing it be compromised.

In a conventional petrol-powered car, that generally means exposing the fuel lines or fuel tank to high amounts of heat or pressure. In a vehicle with compressed gas, be it air, natural gas or hydrogen, compromising the tank the gas is compressed in is enough to cause an explosive release of energy.

In an EV, puncturing cells with a conductive material can cause a high enough current to flow to start a fire.

In other words, an electric car is exposed to pretty much the same risks as any other fuel type.

To end, we have one more observation: car fires happen every day around the world, and very few are reported on. That’s because we’ve become used to the risk of fire from internal combustion engined cars. But the spectacle of an EV bursting into flames is a little like EVs in general to most people: something of a curiosity.

Are you at risk from your EV bursting into flames? No more than you are of winning the lottery. Until we know differently, we’d like to suggest if you have an EV that you Keep Calm And Charge On. There’s nothing to see here.

Do you agree, or are you worried about EV safety in the light of this video? Let us know in the Comments below.


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