Tesla Model S Driver Hits Object On HOV Lane Near Kent, Washington, Car Smokes, Catches Fire; Is Lithium Battery Dangerous? [VIDEO]

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UPDATE Oct. 4: Elizabeth Jarvis-Shean, Tesla's director of global communications, wrote in an email to the media on Friday afternoon: "Today, Tesla posted this blog about the Model S fire near Seattle, WA this week to our site: http://www.teslamotors.com/blog/model-s-fire."

Excerpt of statement from CEO Elon Musk: 

"When the fire department arrived, they observed standard procedure, which was to gain access to the source of the fire by puncturing holes in the top of the battery's protective metal plate and applying water. For the Model S lithium-ion battery, it was correct to apply water (vs. dry chemical extinguisher), but not to puncture the metal firewall, as the newly created holes allowed the flames to then vent upwards into the front trunk section of the Model S. Nonetheless, a combination of water followed by dry chemical extinguisher quickly brought the fire to an end."

Meanwhile, the company's stock down 6.2 percent from Wednesday, the first full trading day after the Model S fire incident in Kent, Washington, to $183.46 in Friday after-hours trading. 

UPDATE: Oct. 2, 2013, 3:51 p.m. EDT:

Tesla CEO Elon Musk lost nearly $600 million in his wealth since the fire incident went viral. Despite Deutsche Bank saying the fire was extinguished "without further incident," Questions remain about how firefighters should confront electric-vechile battery fires. 

UPDATE: Oct. 2, 2013, 7:40 p.m. EDT:

Here are more details from the Regional Fire Authority of Kent, Washington about the incident inovoling a Tesla Model S electric sedan catching fire after hitting an object near Seattle. Firefighters said water intensified the fire.

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Original story begins here:

A car engulfed in flames near a highway exit isn’t news. That the car in question was a Tesla Model S luxury electric sedan is, because the lithium ion batteries used to power cars and other objects have been known to smoke and catch fire under certain conditions.

According to the Regional Fire Authority of Kent, Wash., 20 miles south of downtown Seattle, the driver of a black Model S struck something on the HOV lane of Highway 167 Tuesday morning, then managed to exit before the vehicle erupted into flames.

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There were no injuries, but video footage caught by a passerby and uploaded onto YouTube show the front end of the car on fire. The report says the vehicle began smoking and then caught fire as it was exiting the highway. But the report is inconclusive as to what caused the flames.

On Wednesday, Tesla made a statement about the incident: “A Model S collided with a large metallic object in the middle of the road, causing significant damage to the vehicle. The car’s alert system signaled a problem and instructed the driver to pull over safely, which he did. ... 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.”

The issue is a touchy one as Tesla works to become the first since Chrysler in 1925 to build a successful car company from scratch. Lithium-ion batteries have been the subject of scrutiny over the years for their potential to overheat and catch fire.

“Overheating and collisions may cause [lithium ion car] batteries to short-circuit and burst into flames,” said a report by Jennifer Chu of MIT News in June on how engineers are working to lower these risks.

Extensive testing of the Model S by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently earned the car top safety marks in crash tests. Neither the NHTSA nor Tesla has reported any spontaneous battery combustions, but the issue of overheating, smoking and fire in collisions are as real as they are for conventional gasoline-burning cars.

The Chevy Volt went onto the fire-risk spotlight in 2011 when a series of NHTSA crash tests showed the possibility of batteries overheating and catching fire, in some cases weeks after an accident. But to allay public concerns, the agency released this statement in November 2011: "NHTSA is not aware of any roadway crashes that have resulted in battery-related fires in Chevy Volts or other vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries.”

Electric-vehicle promoters claim critics are exaggerating the risk of batteries overheating, and they point to the volatility of pure lithium, which can catch fire if it comes in contact with water. But the NHTSA has stated that lithium ion batteries do not pose a greater fire risk than gasoline-powered vehicles.

Or, to put it another way, an electric car is not immune to accident-related flame-outs.

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