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Tesla electric car crash explosion reignites debate about battery safety

21 February 2017

A Tesla Model S electric car crash in Indianapolis on 3 November 2016 that killed its two occupants has  raised further questions about whether Tesla’s electric car technology, and indeed wider lithium-ion battery technology, is safe, according to an NBC News report.

Model S - Image: Tesla
Model S - Image: Tesla

Tesla had previously taken steps to prevent the lithium-ion batteries used in its vehicles from inadvertently catching fire, but this crash, where the driver hit a tree, caused an immediate conflagration. Emergency responders reported that when they arrived at the scene, individual batteries from the Tesla's pack were popping out of the vehicle and exploding.

According to NBC, Tesla has come under scrutiny as a result of previous fires involving its vehicles. The Model S was involved in several other well-publicised incidents in 2013, most of the fires triggered by road debris unexpectedly puncturing the battery pack. Tesla quickly responded by adding a new titanium shell that reduced the likelihood of such punctures.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk downplayed the risk, noting that there are "thousands" of gasoline-powered vehicles that are involved in fires every year. Referring to one of the Tesla incidents on a Washington State highway, he said in a blog post, "Had a conventional gasoline car encountered the same object on the highway, the result could have been far worse."

In a 2013 blog post, CEO Musk also declared that, "For consumers concerned about fire risk, there should be absolutely zero doubt that it is safer to power a car with a battery than a large tank of highly flammable liquid."

Tesla told NBC News, "We have been deeply saddened by this accident and have been working closely with authorities to facilitate their report. While it can be difficult to determine the precise speed of a vehicle in such a crash, the observed damage and debris field indicate a very high speed collision."

The incident highlights concerns about lithium technology at a time when the chemistry is again coming under close scrutiny. There have been enough reports of fires and meltdowns involving the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 that the FAA barred passengers from carrying the smartphone onto commercial airplanes. A number of airlines have now severely restricted — or barred entirely — shipment of lithium batteries in cargo holds.

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