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'Safest car ever made' Tesla Model S EV crashes and burns. Car 'performed as designed'

Flame-prone batterycar firm under fire

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Updated Pugnacious electric car maker Tesla Motors is embroiled in another media firestorm today, after one of its new Model S EVs - touted by the firm as being the safest car ever tested by US highway authorities - suffered a serious battery fire following an accident.

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Tesla has stated that the incident began when the car ran over a "large metallic object", causing serious damage to the front end of the vehicle where the battery pack is located. It seems that the car was able to come to a halt safely and its occupant got out unhurt: but then the battery pack immolated itself in a major conflagration.

Firefighters attending the scene reportedly struggled to extinguish the blaze, finding that water-based methods were not effective*. They eventually managed to put out the blazing battery using dry extinguishers, having had to puncture it repeatedly, jack up the vehicle, and cut into it from beneath before success was achieved.

The fire and its attendant massive media coverage hit Tesla's stock price hard, scrubbing off 12 per cent of its value as this piece is written and the figure still going down.

The firm is no stranger to controversy, having previously got into angry slanging matches and/or lawsuits with various media organisations (including the BBC - more than once - the New York Times and even the Reg) - not to mention one of its own founders - over coverage or commentary it deemed insufficiently positive.

It has also suffered comparatively minor incidents with its previous Roadster model catching fire.

Comment

At first sight the stock hit would seem quite unfair, as petrol-fuelled cars routinely burn following accidents without any serious effects on their makers' stock price. But some of the stock's price will have reflected the car's apparently record-high safety test rating announced in August, so at least some of the readjustment seems reasonable.

Then there's the fact that Tesla only makes one model, and that the whole concept of all-battery cars is regarded by many as controversial to say the least. Not having delivered many cars as yet, Tesla's value is much more a matter of perception and image than would be the case with a normal car builder.

And you have to say that by most standards Tesla remains wildly overpriced even after today's stock plunge, as it is still valued by the market at around 280 times its earnings. ®

*It seems that the attending firefighters might not have realised at first that they were dealing with an electrical fire - or perhaps they had seldom dealt with primarily electrical fires - or they would never have used water. Aqueous foam would, however, be effective against a pool of burning fuel: possibly that lay behind the decision to use water-based means.

Your correspondent was exhaustively trained in shipboard firefighting in a previous life, and taught never to use water or foam on electrical fires. CO2 was the preferred option, or dry powder at a pinch.

Update

Tesla has provided more details about the fire, telling El Reg that the car "performed as it was designed to do."

"On Tuesday, a Model S collided with a large metallic object in the middle of the road, causing significant damage to the vehicle," a spokeswoman said. "The car's alert system signaled a problem and instructed the driver to pull over safely, which he did. No one was injured, and the sole occupant had sufficient time to exit the vehicle safely and call the authorities."

The fire occurred after one of the 12 batteries used to power the vehicle was ruptured, and ignited. Each of these batteries is isolated from the others behind fire-proof barriers, none of which failed in the blaze.

The cabin of the car is similarly protected and even after the car burned, these stopped any damage to the interior and the fire department was able to extinguish the blaze using normal fire-fighting materials, the spokeswoman told us.

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