Update (Oct. 4, 2013): Elon Musk letter explains why that Tesla Model S caught fire
No injuriesAs our friends at Autoblog Green point out, there were 187,500 "highway vehicle fires" in the US in 2011 (the last year for which data is available). That's just for highways... But of course, when something is new it always attracts a lot more attention, so the fact that a Tesla Model S electric car caught fire after hitting a metallic object, presumably at high speed, is newsworthy.
The important thing is that there were no injuries and that the fire never got inside the cabin. But it's still a spectacular image that will no doubt convince some that "electric cars aren't safe". That's too bad, because the Model S received the highest possible safety ratings after rigorous testing by the NHTSA. Being extremely safe doesn't mean that you can never get into an accident or that nobody can ever be hurt; any vehicle that carries around a lot of energy, whether in a gas tank or a battery, can potentially catch fire. The question is: How rare that is and how controlled things are when it happens. So far, Tesla's record seems very good (the fire seems to have been contained to one section of the battery and didn't cause a runaway reaction, which is a testament to Tesla's engineering).
Check out the video. Tesla's statement about it is below.
Tesla said: "Yesterday, a Model S collided with a large metallic object in the middle of the road, causing significant damage to the vehicle. The car's alert system signaled a problem and instructed the driver to pull over safely, which he did. No one was injured, and the sole occupant had sufficient time to exit the vehicle safely and call the authorities. Subsequently, a fire caused by the substantial damage sustained during the collision was contained to the front of the vehicle thanks to the design and construction of the vehicle and battery pack. All indications are that the fire never entered the interior cabin of the car. It was extinguished on-site by the fire department."
Of course, I hope that Tesla's engineers will review the accident to see if they can't further improve the safety of the car.
But as mentioned at the beginning on this article, this isn't really special except because of the schadenfreude surrounding the fact that it's a Tesla. A search for "car fire" on youtube reveals this:
Seeing the Tesla fire on the news or Youtube was scary for investors, and the stock (TSLA) took a dive:
But I'd say the year-to-date numbers are still pretty satisfactory...
In my opinion, time will show that the Model S is as safe if not safer than other vehicles on the road and people will get used to the idea that even electric cars can have spectacular accidents. It'll stop being newsworthy, as it did for hybrids.
Update: The New York Times has more details.