Video of a Tesla Model S catching fire and burning near Seattle, Washington caused alarm after it was posted to auto site Jalopnik Wednesday. Outcry over the video contributed to a slide in stock price that began when stock analyst Baird downgraded Tesla to “neutral” on Tuesday. But fires are a regular occurrence in combustion-fueled cars. How much does this one crash mean?
Highway fires in traditional combustion engine cars are not rare. A study by FEMA’s U.S. Fire Administration found “an estimated 194,000 highway vehicle fires occurred in the United States each year, resulting in an annual average of approximately 300 deaths, 1,250 injuries and $1.1 billion in property loss.”
The Chevrolet Volt experienced battery fires in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) testing two years ago, but the tests indicated no greater fire risk than gasoline engines.
Most — 85.8 percent — of fires occurred in passenger road vehicles, and only 7.1 percent were intentionally caused. A majority, 60.6 percent, originated in the engine area, and 22.3 percent were caused by electrical failure, a problem that fossil fuel-powered vehicles aren’t safe from. Electric cars, by contrast, are not powered by combustion — which is really just a chain of explosions under the hood.
According to Washington State police, the Model S struck some metal debris on Washington Route 167 near Seattle. The car warned the driver to pull over, and the fire didn’t begin until he had exited the car.
Highway vehicle fires are not especially fatal, with 2.3 fatalities per 1,000 fires, and that’s in part due to the firewall that separates the passenger from the engine. The Tesla Model S includes a firewall as well, and the blaze never spread to the passenger compartment.
This is all to say that an engine fire in an electric car is not especially remarkable, considering there are over 100,000 of them on the road.
Typically, NHTSA investigators would go to Washington to look into the Tesla crash, but with the government shutdown, that won’t happen.