News that a second Tesla Model S went up in flames this month has brought out the usual peals from the Teslot (Tesla zealot) community and has Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA) in damage control mode, pointing out, as it did after the Oct. 1 fire incident in Kent, Wash., that the accident led to no deaths and was quickly extinguished by first responders. The company said it reached out to the driver, as it did before, which praised the safety and performance of the critically acclaimed luxury electric vehicle.
Media reports since the news of the incident went viral after the auto blog Axis of Oversteer serendipitously happened upon a Spanish language news report of the Oct. 17 accident in Mexico's Yucatan. The local newspaper, Progreso Hoy, seemed more fixated on how the car ended up on a median in the city of Merida than it was about the car. The only indication the vehile is a Model S is one photograph; the video of the car popping and then exploding in the first 20 seconds of the clip
As before, the Teslots reacted largely by slamming the media for casting their spotlight on two incidents that would otherwise receive scant attention had they involved vehicles with internal combustion engines. By far the most common complaint involved the number of Tesla car fires compared to the total for conventional passenger cars. These porportionistas argue the Model S is not just as safe as any other sedan but take it a step further to argue they’re less likely to catch fire:
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For its part, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded in 2011 that electric vehicles in general are not at a greater risk of fire than their gasoline-burning counterparts.
In Teslot logic, a car that’s been out for 16 months using new technology, with the biggest pack of lithium ion batteries of any EV on the road, with a high-performance build that invites high-speed driving (as oppose to say, the lower speeds of an electric city car), should be treated exactly the same by the media as when a Honda CR-V flips over on a highway and bursts into flames.
But statistically speaking, they’re right.
The National Fire Protection Authority says there were 187,500 vehicle fires in the U.S. that killed 270 people in 2011. Its data include only fires that occur on highways and they also include motorcycles, buses, trucks and trailers.
The Department of Transportation said there were 41,328,144 light duty vehicles with long wheel bases (full sized passenger cars like the Model S) and 192,513,278 cars with short wheel bases (compacts and smaller) in the U.S. in 2011. Using these numbers, the chances of any vehicle catching fire on a highway in the U.S. is 0.08 percent, or one in 1,250.
Telsa doesn’t release sales figures monthly like other automakers. By the end of the first half of the year, prior to Tesla’s global launch, it reported 12,550 unit sales since the car debuted in June 2012. A safe estimate is that there are at least 20,000 Teslas on the road globally, most of them in North America.
Two out of 20,000 is 0.01 percent. If these figures are anywhere near accurate, then the Model S is less likely to catch fire than any other vehicle. However, the comparison is specious at best. Comparing a niche luxury sedan with a microcosmic market share of all vehicles to all cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles is probably looking past a lot of nuance. For one thing, the profile of a typical Tesla owner is a member of a wealthy, multi-car household. Secondly, total driving miles for the Model S is miniscule at this point.
There’s a sub-set of the proportionistas who even point to the lack of deaths in both accidents, suggesting the narrative the media should be taking in its coverage is to fawn over the 100 percent survivability rate of two drivers involved in two car fires.
Among a minority of the Teslots are the Big Oilers. They’re the fringe minority who believe the auto industry, in bed with the oil industry, has conspired for decades to drive electric vehicles from the marketplace.
These are the folks who took to heart “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, the 2006 documentary by Chris Paine that claims corporate conspiracy rather than lackluster consumer interest is the main reason why the world isn’t tooling around in all-electric cars.
This view that automakers want Tesla to fail over some partnership they have with Big Oil doesn’t explain away the current raft of electric, plug-in and hybrid cars entering the marketplace, or the billions of dollars in research and development the auto sector has spent and is spending on boosting efficiency and introducing technology that has reduced gas consumption – and car fires, for that matter, which have fallen by well over 50 percent in 20 years.
The opposite of the Big Oiler, by the way, is the The Coaler. They’re the breed of Tesla skeptic who point out that the source of most electricity is either coal or natural gas:
The Coalers are right, kind of. Most electricity is produced by coal or natural gas. But natural gas – at least in the U.S. – is cleaner and is rising as a source of utility plant fuel. It’s impossible to argue that electric cars are not cleaner, because they do not emit micro-particulate matter, the tiny flecks of soot that causes reparatory problems in densely populated high-traffic areas, or additional greenhouse gases than what are emitted by power plants or, in the case of gasoline, by the refineries.
There appears to be great interest in the Telsa and those that feel passionate about the cars it’s making are doing their best to defend the company and the vision of its garrulous CEO Elon Musk. But the next time a Model S catches on fire, it’s a bit of a stretch to expect the media to ignore it.