The Tesla S

It's one thing to pay more than $70,ooo for an electric car. It's something else entirely to stand helplessly by as the thing catches fire and burns.

That's what happened to a Seattle-area driver the other day. He told police he hit a small piece of metal that was lying the pavement. He pulled over and was examining his gleaming Tesla S when the car started to smoke.

Firefighters arrived and poured water on the flames, which seemed to make things worse. They switched to dry foam, then cut into the car so they could get to the lithium-ion battery pack under the passenger compartment.

Lithium-ion batteries, you may recall, are also used in other devices great and small -- the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Chevrolet Volt and also cell phones and laptop computers, among others.

Smoke screen

Tesla, which had been sitting on the top of the automotive heap, has been issuing statements pointing out that the battery pack was damaged by the unknown metal object, the fire didn't start spontaneously and so forth. But those statements haven't gotten much mileage when heaped up against the video of the blaze that's been making the rounds on the Internet.

"This was not a spontaneous event," company spokeswoman Liz Jarvis-Shean said in a statement. "Every indication we have at this point is that the fire was a result of the collision and the damage sustained through that."

Tesla shares fell sharply on news of the incident, which tarnished Tesla's reputation for safety. It had been named the "safest car on the road" by a consumer magazine just a few moths ago.

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