A Tesla Model S reportedly caught fire during a test drive in France this past weekend.
Teslas have caught fire before, and it’s important to remember that we don’t yet know much about this incident.
If Tesla can recover software logs from the vehicle, we might find out. But the car was, by accounts received this far, totally destroyed.
Tesla’s battery pack is made up of several thousands lithium-ion battery packs wired together, an idiosyncratic design that leaves the vehicles vulnerable to “thermal events.” These are also early days, relatively speaking, for electric vehicles. For the most part, they seem safe. But there aren’t that many on the road, compared with gas-engined cars and trucks.
But about those gas-burners: they have a long history of conflagrating, exploding, smoking, burning, overheating, steaming, and short-circuiting. This is inevitable when you’re carrying around over a dozen gallons of explosive and flammable fuel, which is being pumped into an motor that generates massive heat by exploding that fuel in small chambers to provide momentum. Throw in the voltage associated with a car’s electrical systems, a battery with enough power to start the engine, and, you know, a cigarette lighter and pack of Marlboros — and BOOM!
A fiery legacy
Yes, boom. The most infamous example of fiery explosions in a gas car is of course the Ford Pinto of the 1970s; it could explode and burn if rear-ended. But cars have been catching fire for more than a hundred years. This doesn’t occur with the frequency it once did — cars are now as safe as they have ever been — but the physics are undeniable, so much so that anyone who has driven for any length of time knows how to be wary around gasoline.
If you turn to motorsports, the blazing legacy of the internal-combustion engine get downright grisly. Formula One driver Niki Lauda was severely burned and disfigured in a 1976 crash in Germany. A decade earlier in Belgium, the legendary Jackie Stewart was trapped in his wrecked race car while being sprayed with fuel; his abject terror compelled him to dedicate his career to improving safety.
Race drivers know the risks of their profession, but for civilians, fire-related recalls of their vehicles are far from uncommon. The last few years have seen everyone from General Motors to Honda to Toyota to Fiat Chrysler Automobiles send out notices alerting owners that their vehicles could catch fire. And some of the biggest recalls in automotive history have involved fire threats.
Tesla is a newcomer to the auto game, and there’s no guarantee that electric batteries will prove to be any safer at scale than gas-engines, although in theory they should be, especially if battery technology advances. But the company has decades to go before its fires catch up to the industry it’s striving to disrupt.