Why does the Tesla Model S catch fire in crashes but not Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf?
Tesla has been receiving a lot of unwanted attention lately because the Model S super sedan has had three fires in the past couple of months. Our coverage has been careful to point out that we do not think the vehicle is unsafe, or that the vehicle is more likely to catch fire than an internal combustion vehicle. However, there is one new question some are asking. That is “Why are the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf not catching fire after crashes, but three Tesla Model S cars have?”
In the three years since its inception, Chevy has sold more than 50,000 Volts in the US. According to Pam Fletcher, GM's Electrified Vehicles Engineering Chief, that adds up to about 300 million miles driven. She was recently asked if Chevy could offer the folks at Tesla any help. Please see video below. Regardless of what metric one chooses, the Chevy has about 3 times the amount of cars or miles driven than does the Tesla. Yet, in all that time nobody has ever caught one with its battery packs burning in a crash, or in a spontaneous event. The Volt did make news after the battery pack caught fire after a crash test. However, it was literally weeks after the test while the destroyed vehicle was in storage. A government investigation, as well as internal GM investigation led to some strengthening of the battery support compartment.
Our in-house Nissan expert, Aaron Turpen was asked about the Leaf for this story. He could not recall any Leaf fires after crashes being reported. Nor could our own internet search bring up any examples. Some have been burned in wildfires in Colorado, but the battery packs were not burned. The Nissan Leaf has outsold the Tesla Model S by a factor of three or more as well.
Up until this point Elon Musk, the Howard Hughes of electric cars, has usually defended his company vigorously, always referring to how much safer the Model S is compared to vehicles that use gasoline. We take no issue with his claims (although on the Tesla blog a mathematical sword fight has ensued). We do wonder though why the Volt and the Leaf are not having battery pack fires when they run things over or hit retaining walls.
One answer could be that the Tesla has waaay more battery than either the Volt of Leaf. The battery covering the entire bottom of the car just a few inches from the ground might be a significant reason. In the Tesla Model S that cannot be easily changed. Also, weight is not one of that car's strong points, so adding a big tough skid-plate is not an ideal solution. The car is also expensive, so a thin tough carbon fiber skid-plate addition is also not really an easy fix.
Reporters and the media are continuing to poke at Tesla’s three fires in five weeks. Regardless of whether the car is safe or not is usually not the focus of the story. The reputation of Tesla is now at stake and Tesla would be wise to look closely at the Audi and Toyota witch hunts of the past to see the inevitable outcome and adopt the best strategy it can to move past this issue. Continuing to say “Yes, our electric cars catch fire, but so do gasoline cars” may not keep working as comparisons to the Volt and Leaf start to be the angle of attack on the company.
Our accompanying photo of a Tesla Model S NOT on fire courtesy of the Tesla Website. Video courtesy of Youtube.com and the ChurchillClub