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Tesla calls for federal safety investigation of Model S fires

Tesla calls for federal safety investigation of Model S fires

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Tesla has asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to investigate recent fires in two of its Model S electric cars. In a blog post, company CEO Elon Musk writes that while he believes the Model S is incredibly safe — any safer car, he writes "would have to possess mystical powers of healing" — Tesla is taking several actions to address the fires, including initiating an NHTSA investigation to determine if a recall is needed. Though the investigation could find defects in the Model S, Musk hopes that the NHTSA will clear his car of fault, potentially heading off the perception that electric vehicles are less safe than gas vehicles.

A software update will change the Model S' suspension

Tesla is also modifying the Model S in a surprising way: an over-the-air update. Through a software change, Tesla is able modify the suspension on the Model S, resulting in greater ground clearance when at highway speeds. The change could be an important one, as it was damage to the cars' undercarriage and batteries, caused by striking metallic objects on the road while at high speeds, that caused both fires. A third fire was also reported recently, however it was caused by a crash. Tesla is also extending the warranty on every Model S to cover fires, including ones where the driver is at fault — so long as they aren't actually trying to destroy the car.

The series of actions come after what Musk says is a series of media reports that could skew the public toward believing that electric cars are far more dangerous than gas cars. "Nothing could be further from the truth," Musk writes. He says that the Model S has seen an average of one fire for every 6,333 or so cars, while gas vehicles see one fire for every 1,350 cars. Gasoline is also far more combustible, while the battery in the Model S includes built-in firewalls intended to isolate damage. "It is also why arsonists tend to favor gasoline," Musk writes.

Though Musk's bottom line is certainly at stake, he points toward the broader issue of the acceptance of electric vehicles. "If a false perception about the safety of electric cars is allowed to linger, it will delay the advent of sustainable transport and increase the risk of global climate change, with potentially disastrous consequences worldwide," Musk writes. "That cannot be allowed to happen."

Musk thinks it's unlikely that the NHTSA will find a defect

The NHTSA writes that it will be conducting a preliminary investigation to "examine the potential risks associated with undercarriage strikes" on the 2013 Model S. The majority of defect investigations are closed at this stage, though were it to go further, Tesla could be required to perform a recall. Musk writes that if a design change was found that could "materially improve" the car's safety, Tesla would "apply that change to new cars and offer it as a free retrofit to all existing cars." Musk believes that such a finding is unlikely. The NHTSA has even previously found that the Model S was the safest car on the road, though it wasn't specifically examining the battery issue at the time.