Video shows Tesla bursting into flames on Los Angeles street 'out of the blue'

Monday , June 18, 2018 - 12:32 PM

Peter Holley

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

Startling video showing a Tesla Model S appearing to burst into flames on a Los Angeles street has been shared thousands of times since it was posted late Friday.

The video was posted on Twitter by actress Mary McCormack, who said it showed her husband’s car engulfed in fire.

“This is what happened to my husband and his car today,” McCormack said in a post that has since been deleted. “No accident, out of the blue, in traffic on Santa Monica Blvd.”

“And thank god my three little girls weren’t in the car with him,” she added, after thanking the “kind couple” who told her husband to pull over.

Noting that the video appeared to show a battery fire, a Tesla spokesman called the incident an “extraordinarily unusual occurrence.”

“Our initial investigation shows that the cabin of the vehicle was totally unaffected by the fire due to our battery architecture, which is designed to protect the cabin in the very rare event that a battery fire occurs,” the spokesman said.

“While our customer had time to safely exit the car, we are working to understand the cause of the fire,” the spokesman added. “We’re glad our customer is safe.”

On Monday, the National Transportation Safety Board said Tesla has “shared information about the circumstances” of the incident and the agency plans to investigate.

“The NTSB is sending one technical specialist to observe Tesla’s examination of the vehicle,” the agency said in a statement. “The observation will provide the agency with an opportunity to learn more about fires in all types of battery-powered vehicles.”

There were around 174,000 highway vehicle fires in 2015, the most recent year data is available, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Those fires resulted in 445 deaths, 1550 injuries and $1.2 billion in damages, the organization noted.

Mechanical or electrical failures or malfunctions are factors in about two-thirds of the automobile fires.

The NFPA numbers don’t specify how many, if any, of those fires involved electric batteries. The U.S. market share of plug-in electric passenger cars was less than 1 percent in 2015, according to HybridCars.com.

Tesla claims their vehicles are at least 10 times less likely to experience a fire than a gasoline-powered car.

“The most recent data from the National Fire Protection Association and U.S. Federal Highway Administration shows that there are 55 incidents of fire for every billion miles traveled in the U.S. Tesla’s rate is five incidents of fire for every billion miles traveled, and that even includes fires caused by arson,” Tesla said.

In recent months, Tesla has faced increasing scrutiny about the performance of its semiautonomous Autopilot feature, production delays and the company’s financial health. But batteries bursting into flames have not been an issue.

Alistair Weaver, editor in chief at Edmunds.com, the automotive website, told CBS News that the video may give the impression that car batteries are less safe than they actually are.

“Well, of course the video footage itself looks alarmist,” he said. “There’s obviously been some issues with lithium ion batteries in the past, particularly around cellphones, but electric car batteries are very different. It’s a lot of sophisticated technology.”

“We’ve driven over 50,000 miles in these vehicles and have never replicated this or anything like it, nor have we seen any evidence elsewhere of other cars spontaneously catching fire, so I think it needs more investigation,” he added.

Tesla vehicles are the subject of several federal investigations involving vehicles in Autopilot mode that caught fire after wrecking.

In March, a Tesla driver was killed when his Model X crashed on a California highway, unleashing a fire and nearly ripping the vehicle in half. The vehicle was in Autopilot mode when it slammed into a median on Highway 101 in Mountain View, California.

In May, the NTSB began investigating a crash involving a Model S that killed two teenagers in Florida after it crashed into a wall and burst into flames.

The agency said the fire, which may have been exacerbated by the vehicle’s battery, is the focus of the investigation, not the vehicle’s semiautonomous system.

“I saw the car coming too fast, southbound around that curve, sideswipe the first wall, hit the second wall, the curved wall, and immediately burst into flames,” Larry Groshart told CBS Miami. “It was burning all the way across until it hit the lamp post.”

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