Despite being named 2012 Car of the Year by Automobile Magazine and Yahoo! Autos, and chosen as one of Time magazine’s best inventions of 2012, recent media headlines in 2013 haven’t been quite as kind to Tesla Motors’ Model S. Over the past two months, three fires in Tesla’s vehicles have gained widespread attention. The fires have significantly contributed to the 20% slide in Tesla’s stock price this month, although the stock is still up more than 300% since the beginning of 2013.
Pushing aside the media hysteria, let’s take a look at the facts. On average, 17 automobile fires are reported every hour in the United States (194,000 on average every year between 2008 and 2010), killing an average of four people every week. Of particular importance, mechanical or electrical failures or malfunctions were reported in roughly two-thirds of automobile fires. As for the Tesla fires, all three involved car crashes; the fires did not begin spontaneously as the result of electrical failures or malfunctions, and in all three incidents the driver walked away without injury.
For a deeper comparison of electric and internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, it’s useful to analyze the safety of the vehicles more generally. This can be achieved through analyzing vehicle fires and deaths per billion miles driven. EVs are approaching 1 billion miles driven. The Chevrolet Volt (300 million), Nissan LEAF (323 million), and Tesla Model S (100 million) represent the majority of these electric miles driven.
According to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, roughly 90 highway vehicle fires and 0.15 highway vehicle fire deaths occur in ICE vehicles per billion miles driven. Conversely, EVs have had a total of four reported fires and zero fatalities for the first near one billion electric miles driven. Thus, ICE vehicles are 22.5 times more likely to catch on fire than EVs. It’s also important to keep in mind that EVs are the first models of their kind, essentially experimental vehicles, and have still been able to far surpass the safety record of ICE automobiles.
So why is there so much attention and scrutiny on Tesla? Considering the frequency of car fires, perhaps the fact that Tesla went so long without having any is the main reason for the Model S making headlines. Consumers may also hold EVs to a higher safety standard than traditional vehicles, due to the absence of gasoline in EVs. However, not all are expressing distrust or skepticism around the Tesla fires. Panasonic, manufacturer of battery cells for the Tesla Model S, has recently come to the aid of the automaker, and the company’s chief financial officer expressed confidence in Tesla and the performance of its batteries. Panasonic ranked as the fourth best overall lithium ion battery manufacturer in the world in Navigant Research’s Leaderboard Report: Lithium Ion Batteries for Electric Vehicles.
Regardless of the recent media concern over EV safety, one issue remains clear : if your car does go up in flames, having an electric battery under the hood is much safer than a tank of gas, any day of the week.
Tags: Clean Transportation, EV Charging, Electric Vehicles, Smart Transportation Practice, Smart Transportation Program, Tesla Motors
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