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US watchdog snaps on thick gloves to probe Tesla's FIREBALL e-cars

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America's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened a formal investigation into the safety of the Tesla S electric car after a second vehicle of that model apparently burst into flames.

Tesla itself asked for a NHTSA investigation, according to a blog post by firm's CEO Elon Musk. But this was denied by the head of the regulatory body David Strickland, who said it had decided to conduct an investigation in a response to the two recent US fires caused by debris hitting the underside of the car.

"Investigations are independent," Strickland told The Detroit News. "We have never - in my recollection, before I got to NHTSA (as a Senate staffer) or as administrator - have actually had an automaker ask for a formal investigation," adding that the agency had notified Tesla about its plans for an investigation before the formal announcement on Tuesday

"But it causes a couple of implications: If a manufacturer asks me or asks the agency for a formal investigation, you've already made a determination that you may have a defect that imposes an unreasonable risk to safety... I don't think that would ever happen."

Musk, however, has come out with all guns blazing (no pun intended.) In Monday's blog post he pointed out that since production started on the model S there have been over 400 deaths and 1,200 serious injuries from gasoline-powered cars - compared to zero with Teslas. Statistically there has been one fire per 6,333 Teslas, compared to the one per 1,350 cars using tanks of hydrocarbons.

"By this metric, you are more than four and a half times more likely to experience a fire in a gasoline car than a Model S! Considering the odds in the absolute, you are more likely to be struck by lightning in your lifetime than experience even a non-injurious fire in a Tesla," Musk wrote.

He also pointed out that the NHTSA has already crash tested the Tesla S and found it to be the safest car ever, awarding it a perfect five for passenger safety. No driver had ever been injured in one of Musk's sedans and in the event of both fires the driver was able to exit the vehicle safely and without injury.

Nevertheless Tesla has examined the fires, and one in Mexico, and is making some changes. A software update is being pushed out to all cars so that they ride higher while driving at freeway speeds, and in January a second update will allow drivers to adjust the car's road clearance themselves.

Secondly, the sales terms and conditions for new buyers will be altered so that the car is now covered for damage caused by fire, even if that fire was down to driver error. The only way to invalidate the warranty is if the driver actively tried to destroy the vehicle, he said.

NHTSA boss Strickland has however had run-ins with Tesla in the past. In August he expressed irritation at Musk's attitude in meetings over the car's safety.

"On more than one occasion [Musk] has directly challenged me in one on one meetings on a number of issues regarding electric vehicles," Strickland said. "He is very passionate. He has very strong views and on occasion I have had to explain to him, I am really not trying to mess up his business model. I am trying to do this to actually keep people safer." ®

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