Solomon: Another Tesla Spontaneously Combusts - Musk's Company Has Some Critical Lessons to Learn
Many of us have been learning what Elon Musk has known for a long time — that Tesla battery fires are hard to put out.
A Sacramento highway fire again highlighted this on Saturday, requiring a fire department ladder truck, two fire engines, and a massive 6,000 gallons of water. This was the result of a Tesla Model S spontaneously combusting on Highway 50, causing the kind of catastrophic fire that can leave a Tesla a charred, hot mess.
There is, of course, a website that tracks every Tesla fire. Saturday’s fire was No. 169. Of those documented fires, 50 involved fatalities, though, thankfully, Sacramento’s did not.
There are several issues at play here. The first is simple product liability.
Imagine a gas engine that simply explodes. From a liability perspective, it’s not any different with a battery engine, assuming there is evidence that something in the manufacture or design caused the fire.
With Tesla battery fires, the issue is the battery itself. Lithium-ion batteries burn differently than a gas engine would. Tesla warns first responders that because of the unique nature of lithium-ion battery fires, it can take 24 hours for them to be fully extinguished.
I asked Robert Maider, a personal injury lawyer with decades of experience and expertise in car accidents, about liability issues with Tesla car batteries: “Part of what makes an EV battery fire so dangerous is that it’s not necessarily out when you think it’s out. Chemical chain reactions in the battery have caused fires to reignite once the initial fire has been put out. Depending upon where the car is when those reactions occur, there could be extended liability based on new damage the fire ends up doing.”
The reality is that with an electric car fire, you need water. A lot of water, to be exact, as the Sacramento fire highlighted so well. The problem is that fire departments are much better at putting out fires with substances that aren’t water — they use dry chemicals and special foams that aren’t suited to electric vehicle fires because they don’t work on lithium-ion batteries.
Crews arrived to a Tesla Model S engulfed in flames, nothing unusual prior. 2 Fire Engines, a water tender, and a ladder truck were requested to assist. Crews used jacks to access the underside to extinguish and cool the battery. Thousands of gallons were used in extinguishment. pic.twitter.com/5dIXxo9hP5
— Metro Fire of Sacramento (@metrofirepio) January 29, 2023
Ironically, Vox put out a major feature just last week on Tesla fires, highlighting how catastrophic these battery blazes can be. The Vox piece leads with some well-placed intentional drama: “When Thayer Smith, a firefighter in Austin, Texas, received the call that a Tesla was on fire, he knew that he’d need to bring backup.”
The piece then goes on to describe exactly what Maider mentioned — the delayed reaction that an EV engine fire can have. Though firefighters were able to put out the fire at the gas station, what remained of the car — little more than a burnt metal frame — reignited at a junkyard just a few hours later.
The Austin fire at issue was caused by a drunk Tesla driver sliding across the base of a traffic pole, then crashing into a gas pump. This kind of collision exposes and damages the Tesla battery and results in the kind of catastrophic damage synonymous with a Tesla fire.
Yet a 2022 Highway Loss Data Institute report showed that EVs are no more of a fire risk than gas-powered cars and that the fires they generate are no more or less dangerous. But part of what causes these fires to become viral on social media is how spectacular they can be.
Way before the days of social media, we had the now-extinct Ford Pinto. What killed the Pinto as a brand was engine fires.
The Ford Pinto engine fires in the 1970s were a cautionary tale, a series of incidents in which vehicles caught fire because of problems with the design of their engines. The issue was that when a car crashed, it could rupture fuel tanks and cause gasoline to leak onto hot engine parts — which would cause a fire or explosion.
Engineers first discovered the problem at Ford in 1972, but the company decided not to fix the issue because it would cost too much money. They didn’t want to recall all of their vehicles because they had already been sold, so instead, they offered to pay for repairs if people were hurt by fire or explosion as a result of this design flaw.
In 1978, a Ford Pinto pickup truck driven by Richard Grimshaw caught on fire after rear-ending another vehicle; Grimshaw died in the accident. His family sued Ford for negligent homicide and won $2 million in damages. This case set precedent for future cases involving product liability lawsuits against manufacturers who make unsafe products that cause injury or death (in this case, by causing fires).
With more EVs on the road than ever before, Tesla should learn some critical lessons from the Pinto fires. But it has had similar opportunities in the past and hasn’t taken advantage of them.
Another factor that might make things worse for Tesla is that these battery fires aren’t just happening in the United States, but in some countries with stricter liability laws. Tesla battery fires have been documented in Switzerland, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Sweden.
A QZ piece from an entire decade ago asked the same question that Tesla should be asking itself today, as its brand might depend upon it: “For Tesla Motors, the question is, what about the fire next time?”
A brand never knows when the next time is the last time. For Tesla and for Elon Musk, the next catastrophic Tesla battery fire could be the one that really goes viral and turns enough consumers off the Tesla brand to make a difference in the company’s future.
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