Three Tesla Model S electric cars have caught fire after crashes in the past several weeks, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is stepping in to investigate. But the problem of engine fires is anything but an electric car problem. In fact, engine fires seem to be a particular problem of fossil fuel-powered vehicles.
Gasoline engines are far more fire-prone, so much that we take for granted that 194,000 highway car fires occur each year, killing 300 and injuring 1,250. To be fair, there are fewer electric cars on the road, about 19,000 Model S vehicles in the U.S.
But an Automotive News analysis found that the Tesla Model S currently averages one fire per 6,333 vehicles, compared to one fire per 1,350 vehicles overall, meaning the Model S is actually exceptionally safe as far as fires go. Add to that the fact that the Model S fires didn’t result in any death or injury, and the fact that they are being singled out for investigation seems even stranger.
Like most cars, the Model S has a firewall between the passenger compartment and engine to keep passengers safe from potential fire. One of the drivers whose battery caught fire was even able to retrieve pens and papers from the glove compartment afterwards, unburned.
Tesla is doing its best to push that message. In a blog post, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk said the company had requested an NHTSA investigation, expecting the findings to reaffirm the car’s safety. The problem in all three incidents appeared to stem from debris striking and piercing the cars’ batteries during a crash, and Tesla plans to reassure customers that this is rare by extending the car’s warranty to cover any damage due to fire, even if caused by driver error.
The NHTSA previously rated the Model S as the safest car ever tested, 5.4 stars on a 5-star scale, and that was in large part due to the fact that it’s electric. The big crumple zones made possible by the Model S’ small electric engine and its low center of gravity contributed to reduced risk from head-on collision and much less likelihood of rollovers.