November 25, 2013

Fires, Problems Persist for Tesla

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By ANDREW LEE

News that electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors’ vehicles could be vulnerable to fires is not surprising, a Cornell researcher says.

Last week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that it was launching an investigation into Tesla Motor’s Model S, which uses a type of rechargeable battery commonly found in consumer electronics. The investigation comes after a Model S caught fire when it hit a piece of debris on the road.

The accident marks the third Model S fire in the past six weeks, Reuters reported.

Elon Musk, chief executive officer and chief product architect of Tesla Motors, announced that the company would push out a software update to the Model S to provide more clearance between the car’s undercarriage and the road, according to Reuters.

According to Arthur Wheaton, director of the Western N.Y. Labor and Environmental program for the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Tesla’s problems are nothing new for electric car and lithium-ion battery manufacturers.

“Electric cars have been in the U.S. since the 1890s,” Wheaton said in an e-mail. “One hundred and twenty years later, they are still too expensive, too heavy and too energy inefficient.”

Wheaton added that the lithium-ion battery technology used in the Tesla Model S has a history of overheating.

“Laptops and other electronics with lithium-ion batteries have faced fires and explosions due to overheating,” he said. “Even the Boeing Dreamliner has had problems with their lithium-ion batteries.”

If the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determines that this problem is a wide-spread safety defect that would endanger the public, Tesla will have to recall affected vehicles, according to Wheaton.

However, Wheaton said the federal probe would prove beneficial for Tesla if it did not result in a recall.

“If an investigation leads to either a vote of confidence saying no recall is necessary or if a specific fix to address the fire issues is found, then Tesla may be considered safe again,” Wheaton said. “At times, a recall can be seen as a good thing if done promptly.”

Although Tesla reported poor sales compared to conventional carmakers, Wheaton said the media has overreacted to the fires because of “the hype surrounding [Tesla’s] stock price and the previous safety ratings for the car.”

“[Tesla] has not sold very many vehicles compared to any of the major automakers,” Wheaton said. “Ford sells more F-150 pickup trucks each month than Tesla has sold in its entire history.”

Wheaton said Tesla has “not even come close to making money from the sales of its vehicles,” and that, if the cars continue to have malfuncitons, there will be even fewer sales. He added that the only reason Tesla receives the tax credits is because it is environmentally friendly.

“Tesla is an image car: people want to be seen driving them because they have a positive environmental image,” Wheaton said.

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