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Fatal Tesla crash forces police to rethink approach to EV batteries

Following three reignited fires with one vehicle, police say they didn't know just how flammable lithium ion batteries were

Photo (c) Sjo - Getty Images
Six years ago, when auto enthusiasts first questioned how the lithium ion batteries that power Teslas and others EVs would fare in a wreck, Elon Musk was unequivocal that the chances of a Tesla battery catching on fire after a crash were almost non-existent.

“You are more likely to be struck by lightning in your lifetime than experience even a non-injurious fire in a Tesla,” Musk said in 2013.

“The theoretical probability of a fire injury is already vanishingly small and the actual number to date is zero,” he added.

While industry experts disagree over whether there’s enough independent data to back that claim (watchdog groups like the Center for Auto Safety say there isn’t), the risk of a Tesla catching on fire isn’t an abstract problem, and it may be higher than the company has previously let on.

Tesla fires are a big enough concern that first responders are learning to approach EV battery fires differently than they would fires in gasoline-powered cars.

“We are going to be coming up with some training in the near future, as far as how to deal with this kind of stuff,” Sgt. Mark Leone with the Davie Police Department in south Florida tells ConsumerAffairs.

The Davie Crash

On a Sunday night, a physician and father of five was driving his 2016 Tesla Model S on a busy road between 75 and 90 miles per hour when “the vehicle left the roadway for unknown reasons,” according to the Davie Police Department. The driver crashed into a tree.

Police officers happened to already be in the area and pulled up to the scene immediately after the crash. Officers tried to break open the windows to get the victim out of the car, according to police.

“The car was not on fire yet.” when the officers arrived, Leone tells ConsumerAffairs. The fire broke out soon after though, and became too overwhelming for the officers to continue.

Leone says that Davie police officers are trained to do everything they can to pull people out of burning cars. This is the first fiery crash in recent years, Leone says, “where we haven’t been able to get the person out.”

Fire response

Firefighters with the Davie Fire Department arrived shortly after and extinguished the blaze.

En route to the salvage yard, the Tesla caught fire a second time while in the back of the tow truck. Firefighters had followed the tow truck and quickly acted to extinguish the car again, according to Davie Fire Department Marshal Robert Taylor.

Then, at the tow yard, the car reignited that night and again the next morning. At one point, in between the fires Taylor says that he received a call from a fire chief in California, who shared some helpful advice about putting out EV battery fires. Tesla officials also called the fire department to check on everyone and offer help, Taylor says.

The victim, Omar Awan, died at the scene.

Did Tesla adequately warn the general public?

In a statement to ConsumerAffairs, Tesla spokespeople did not answer whether the company stands by its claim that people are more likely to be struck by lightning than experience a fire in a Tesla.

Instead, Tesla spokespeople point out that the company published a manual online specifically addressed to first responders. The manual describes the unique risk of putting out an EV battery fire, namely that “battery fires can take up to 24 hours to extinguish” and require 3,000 gallons of water.

Taylor, the Davie Fire Department marshal, says he was already familiar with that Tesla manual and with the idea that EV fires require more long-term monitoring and enormous amounts of water.

“Once it’s extinguished, you have to keep monitoring it using a thermal imager,” Taylor tells ConsumerAffairs.

Other fire departments have also prepared for situations like this. The town of Mountain View, California is in the heart of Silicon Valley. The local fire department got hands-on practice for putting out battery fires in 2014, in a special training session right at the Tesla factory, the Mountain View Fire Department chief said in a previous interview.

But not everyone got the message. Leone, the sergeant with the Davie police department, says that he only learned after the recent crash that Tesla has a special manual for first responders.

"It’s something that I just heard about yesterday,” Leone tells ConsumerAffairs. "I don’t own a Tesla so I never thought to look at the owner’s manual.”

"We are going to come up with some training for dealing with an issue like this, because Tesla is not the only battery-operated car,” he adds.

What experts say

Whether first responders are universally aware that EV cars can catch fire and require a different approach for firefighting has major public safety implications. According to researchers, the techniques that firefighters use for putting out gasoline-fueled fires could actually make the fire worse in a battery-powered car. Researchers say that lithium ion batteries in general pose an inherent fire risk.

“We’re in uncharted waters here,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Donald Sadoway told Bloomberg magazine last year.  

The battery industry has improved lithium ion batteries over the years, but in situations where the battery cells are violently torn apart in a crash, “it's basically like a firecracker,” University of Pittsburgh engineering professor Prashant Kumta told the magazine. “You have one battery that catches fire, then the next one catches fire and pretty soon they’re all on fire.”

The comparison between fire rates in battery-powered cars and gasoline cars is an unsettled science, but Musk can no longer claim that “the actual number [of fire injuries] to date is zero,” as he did in 2013.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is currently investigating several fatal car crashes in which a Tesla caught on fire following a violent crash. The family of a teen killed in a high-speed Tesla crash in Fort Lauderdale recently filed a lawsuit alleging that the battery in the car was defective and “had inadequate measures to prevent a post-collision fire.” The fire in that crash also reignited several times after it was initially extinguished.

Tesla’s press team declined to answer questions from ConsumerAffairs about their outreach efforts to first responders or the likelihood of a Tesla catching on fire. A full statement from the company is below:

"We are deeply saddened by this accident and our thoughts are with everyone affected by this tragedy. We have reached out to the local authorities to offer our cooperation. We understand that speed is being investigated as a factor in this crash, and know that high speed collisions can result in a fire in any type of car, not just electric vehicles.”

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