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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  • Michael Thwaite

    It’s encouraging that, when you set the ‘gas’ tank alight, the fire can still be managed.nnnI’m no expert and will demonstrate that now by asking, “Why do they put the fire out?” I mean, the firefighters risked injury to put it out, why not let it burn out naturally. Is it about limiting property damage? Risk of explosion in an ICE car? I’m genuinely curious.

    • Volt Owner

      I think it’s more about wanting to get the flaming heap out of the middle of road so others can go about their business. Also, a fire can damage the road surface, I don’t think firefighters get any brownie points for letting that happen. And sometimes flaming debris can be swept away by the wind and start other things to burning. Like the time I went through the smoke from a brush fire along side the road. Didn’t think much about it as there was a fire truck there putting it out. It was about 20 miles later when the traffic started swerving around burning bales in the two slow lanes and a minute later we passed a hay truck that was fully engulfed. One spark and a lot of wind…nnnnI have seen cars along side the road that were allowed to completely melt down while the firefighters just waited for the flames to die down. Being off the road meant traffic was minimally affected, and being off the pavement meant no damage was being done to that public property.

      • Michael Thwaite

        Interesting, makes sense. I too have watched a car burn to the ground just down the road from me, I think most of us have.

  • Doug King

    Nice write up. However, I tend to think that driving over road debris is much much more common occurrence than a lightning strike. I personally know several people who had their cars (different types) damaged by driving over something in the middle of the lane because it was unsafe to swerve and avoid. Will this event cause Model S drivers to be more likely to attempt to swerve? nnAlso I think it would be pretty easy to design a test for this type of incident. Call it the “drive over debris test”. The question is how often does such a thing happen to merit the test? Given the circumstances, I think the Model S preformed quite well.

    • Michael Thwaite

      If I’ve got my details right, Eric S drove over a scaffolding pole in his Tesla Roadster – punched a hole through the rear of the chassis, didn’t catch on fire though. Maybe electric cars are magnetic?

      • Doug King

        Was his car also struck by lightening?

  • I own a Model S, and I’ve seen what’s buried in the front of the car underneath the front trunk (see photo). The battery pack sits rearward of the front crumple zone, not up front where the fire appears to be. You can see the front end of the pack in the very top of this image. The other items in this area are related to power steering, air conditioning, brakes, and air suspension. There are also two small pumps which circulate coolant through the battery pack and motor.nnThere appears to be burning liquid on the ground under the vehicle, which would be more consistent with burning brake fluid. While it’s possible that the damaged battery pack could have been the initial source of ignitionu2014and Tesla so far believes it wasu2014this would be a one-in-a-million accident if that was the case. During multiple crash tests by NHTSA, the battery pack was never compromised.nnI feel much safer in the Tesla Model S than I do in a gas car with 20-gallons of liquid explosive on board.

    • Michael Thwaite

      Our children will chuckle as they tell our great grandchildren how once, when they were young, they’d all sit in the car whilst a man would pour liquid explosives through a tube behind their heads into a plastic box under their bottoms and, maybe, how they used to run with scissors and other foolish things.

  • @ToddRLockwood:disqus — You make a really valid point. That’s why we think it’s really important to keep some perspective and be willing to wait for the official crash report. We’re glad you agree 🙂 Nikki.

  • Ebikeguy

    Hmmm… Do I want to be sitting on top of 20 gallons of highly nexplosive liquid that will turn into a fire ball when hit by a spark, orn on top of a battery pack that can catch fire when badly damaged? I nthink I’ll go for the battery pack.

  • DaveinOlyWA

    stats vary GREATLY on this but basically 2/3rds of fires are electrically related so gasoline cars are not immunre. the shocker is only 2% is related to fuel and 4% related to accidents. so if we go back to the 2/3rds that is electrically related; most are due to poorly maintained vehicles. Since EVs have nearly no maintenance requirements, that pretty much leaves EVs with a risk of 4 % (accidents) and gas cars with 100% I will take those odds any day of the week

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