Since electric vehicles and self-driving technology are both relatively new, people tend to overreact when they run into problems. That’s exactly what happened in 2016 when a Florida man died while using “Autopilot” in his Tesla Model X.
Later, we learned he only had his hands on the wheel for only 25 seconds out of 37 minutes using the feature. However, the damage (to public perception at least) had been done.
When actress Mary McCormack posted video of her Model S on fire on June 15, you could expect more rushing to judgment. However, federal regulators said they weren’t launching a formal investigation into the fire (at least not yet).
Here are the facts about this Tesla incident and what the feds plan to do about it.
1. The car caught fire without crashing.
When McCormack tweeted a video of the car on fire in L.A.’s West Hollywood, she noted that it wasn’t involved in a crash. It simply burst into flames “out of the blue” while her husband was driving down the street.
Another driver alerted him of the fire and he pulled over to avoid harm. (He got out of the car without injury.) McCormack said he was driving alone.
2. Tesla called it ‘extraordinarily unusual.’
In a statement to CNN, Tesla called the fire “an extraordinarily unusual occurrence.” The Palo Alto-based company said it would investigate the incident and noted that the car’s architecture worked as planned to protect the driver.
In addition, Tesla noted that its cars are “10 times less likely to catch fire” than gas-powered vehicles. While that is true given the most recent data, it’s important to mention that this analysis is based on information that is several years old.
3. The NTSB will send an observer to participate in Tesla’s investigation.
While the National Transit Safety Board (NTSB) said it would not directly investigate the crash, a spokesman said it would send an observer to examine the vehicle alongside Tesla employees. (This analysis will likely take place in the coming weeks.)
According to FutureCar, the NTSB representative will aim to “learn more about fires in all types of battery-powered vehicles.” That may not reassure McCormack and others considering a Tesla, but regulators usually operate methodically.
4. Tesla fires without crashes are rare — but not unheard of.
In January 2016, a Tesla caught fire and burned to the ground while charging. The company attributed this event, which took place in Norway, to a short-circuit inside the vehicle.
Nearly all other instances of Teslas catching fire occurred following a high-speed crash. However, every vehicle owner faces this sort of risk with a car.
5. If we heard about every time a gas-powered car caught on fire…
At least in the early stages of the company, it’s clear Tesla’s cars are safer than the average vehicle. If the media published reports every time a gas car caught on fire, that would be all we hear every night on the news.
However, are Teslas safer than the average vehicle with a starting price over $70,000? We don’t hear Tesla break out those numbers when making broad claims following an accident.
Regardless, as Tesla, Chevy, and Nissan EVs continue to find more U.S. owners, we imagine the public will learn more about the technology. It won’t hurt that safety regulators are doing their best to understand them, either.
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