Tesla Fire is About Rushing, Subsidizing Immature Technology, Not Stock Price

Tesla fireA fire (screen capture from Jalopnik.com) that torched a Model S from the formerly Teflon Tesla Motors on Tuesday blackened its front end, lowered its stock price, and (further) revealed a corporate arrogance not seen since Fisker Karmas were alight.

But CEO Elon Musk saw to it that taxpayers were fully paid back their $465 million Department of Energy loan, so as watchdogs over the public purse we can forget all about it and just go on about our business – right?

Wrong. The incident near Seattle still should be of great concern because Tesla still heavily depends on tax breaks (like the consumer’s $7,500 federal credit) and the sale of emissions credits (mainly from California) to partially subsidize the costs of their electric cars. Moreover, the government has invested billions of dollars in the research and development of new battery technology, all in the name of energy efficiency in order to save the world from global warming. Those based on lithium have gone up in flames in planes, plants and automobiles.

One of these days there  will be a fatality, but until then manufacturers dismiss the incidents. The statement Tesla issued about the fire in Kent, Wash. was matter-of-fact and lacked any expression of concern for the vehicle’s owner.

“Yesterday, a Model S collided with a large metallic object in the middle of the road, causing significant damage to the vehicle,” the company response said. “The car’s alert system signaled a problem and instructed the driver to pull over safely, which he did. No one was injured, and the sole occupant had sufficient time to exit the vehicle safely and call the authorities. Subsequently, a fire caused by the substantial damage sustained during the collision was contained to the front of the vehicle thanks to the design and construction of the vehicle and battery pack. All indications are that the fire never entered the interior cabin of the car. It was extinguished on-site by the fire department.”

It almost sounds like Tesla wants an “attaboy” for the brilliance of its safety features and battery design, rather than express how grateful that the driver was not hurt. Whether there actually was a “large” chunk of metal that was struck still isn’t clear from the evidence, but if there was, it’s not a reason for Tesla to be absolved of responsibility. After all, debris is struck in roadways regularly around the country and it doesn’t cause episodes like this. What, for instance, if the Model S had actually collided with an object in the road and it rendered the driver unconscious? Then we’d be talking about a much different result.

Back when Fisker Automotive was still alive and stumbling, their public relations department handled mishaps in a similar fashion. In May 2012 a Fort Bend County, Texas fire marshal attributed a garage blaze to the homeowner’s Fisker Karma, which he had parked shortly before he started smelling burning rubber and discovered the fire. Nevertheless Fisker issued a statement that said, “As of now, multiple insurance investigators are involved, and we have not ruled out possible fraud or malicious intent. Based on initial observations and inspections, the Karma’s lithium ion battery pack was not being charged at the time and is still intact and does not appear to have been a contributing factor in this incident.” The owner was not pleased by the challenge to his integrity.

And after a California Karma fire in August last year, the company said, “We have more than 1,000 Karmas on the road with a cumulative 2 million miles on them. There are more than 185,000 highway vehicle fires in the US every year…No injuries were reported; the vehicle was parked; and the fire was extinguished safely by the emergency services.”

The arrogance isn’t limited to the automotive realm. In April this year Boeing, after a series of “thermal runaway” incidents on its lithium-ion battery-powered Dreamliner, officials announced they gave up trying when it couldn’t find the source of the problem. Instead the manufacturer said they came up with a solution that would both contain a potential fire and vent its heat outside the airplane if another fire happened.

“In some ways it almost doesn’t matter what the root cause was,” said Michael Sinnett, Boeing’s top engineer.

Undoubtedly there are a lot of very smart people who have worked very hard on developing these new technologies. But likewise there have been equally brilliant individuals warning these engineers and entrepreneurs that they are dealing with dangerous materials and chemistry, and that just because someone hasn’t been hurt yet, doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

Lewis Larsen of Chicago-based Lattice Energy LLC has consistently called attention to the problems with lithium ion technologies and their tendencies to thermally run away – or, in other words, burn uncontrollably. The practicality problem (other than their immense cost) with the batteries is that when they experience stress – for any number of reasons – it’s almost like unleashing hell.

“…A battery cell’s electrochemical reactions can suddenly start running at greatly elevated rates that create more process heat than normal thermal dissipative mechanisms can easily handle,” Larsen wrote, “which then starts raising the temperature of battery cell contents out beyond their ideal safe operating range…(eventually) a dangerous feedback loop is created…thermal runaways are thus born….”

For many – perhaps most – people that isn’t the kind of risk you want in your “mobile platform,” as Larsen put it. But rather than emphasize those challenges, most of the media coverage has emphasized what the incident has done to Tesla’s stock price, which irrationally skyrocketed upward this year.

Part of the bombastic investor enthusiasm stemmed from other superlatives bestowed upon the Model S, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s top score of five stars, which spurred Musk to make sure the media was told the car scored even higher on some safety aspects. And then in May Consumer Reports’ announced the Model S scored 99 out of 100 – almost perfect!

It was all too much too soon for the electric car with a minimal track record. The doubts and questions about lithium ion batteries used in vehicles and planes – and the massive taxpayer subsidization of them – are still valid.

Paul Chesser is an associate fellow for the National Legal and Policy Center and publishes CarolinaPlottHound.com, an aggregator of North Carolina news.