Musk Defends Vision As Model S Investigation Begins

Citing needs to correct unbalanced media reports and overblown public perceptions, Tesla Chairman Elon Musk has announced corrective measures to the Model S and that Tesla has requested the hastening of a federal investigation into the car.

Today the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it has opened a formal investigation on 2013 Model S sedans due to “undercarriage strikes” that resulted in fire from thermal runaway, but no bodily injuries.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

On Oct. 2 and Nov. 6 two Model S fires in the U.S. were widely publicized involving heavy metal objects on the highway.

But despite Musk’s assertion of media misrepresentation, Tesla’s latest blog post was itself ambiguously worded, stating, “we have requested that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conduct a full investigation as soon as possible into the fire incidents.”

If not otherwise informed, one might infer Tesla requested NHTSA to investigate it. While Tesla may have asked NHTSA to expedite the investigation, when asked to clarify who got the ball rolling, NHTSA said the actual request came from NHTSA, not the other way around.

“NHTSA’s decision to open any formal investigation is an independent process,” said an e-mail from NHTSA today. “In regards to Tesla, the agency notified the automaker of its plans to open a formal investigation and requested their cooperation, which is standard agency practice for all investigations. The automaker agreed to do so.”

Among Tesla’s voluntary corrective measures are a warranty upgrade to account for fire due to inadvertent damage, and a software update to adjust ground clearance – to prevent car damage which Musk has therefore conceded remains possible, but not to be confused with fire safety threat mitigation.

“To be clear, this is about reducing the chances of underbody impact damage, not improving safety,” he said. “Another software update expected in January will give the driver direct control of the air suspension ride height transitions.”

Musk said given no deaths have occurred in a Model S fire to date, “you have a zero percent chance of being hurt in an accident resulting in a battery fire” however Tesla is adjusting ground clearance on the Model S which has had ability to lower to about 5.2 inches off the road.

“While we think it is highly unlikely, if something is discovered that would result in a material improvement in occupant fire safety, we will immediately apply that change to new cars and offer it as a free retrofit to all existing cars,” wrote Musk.

Also, he said, “to reinforce how strongly we feel about the low risk of fire in our cars, we will be amending our warranty policy to cover damage due to a fire, even if due to driver error.”

Unless someone willfully attempts to destroy the car, they’re covered, Musk said, and the goal is “to eliminate any concern about the cost of such an event and ensure that over time the Model S has the lowest insurance cost of any car at our price point.”

Tesla’s Mission

Musk also said there is a “larger issue at stake” and this has to do with perceptions, whether positive or negative.

“[I]f a false perception about the safety of electric cars is allowed to linger,” said Musk, “it will delay the advent of sustainable transport and increase the risk of global climate change, with potentially disastrous consequences worldwide. That cannot be allowed to happen.”

Musk’s announcements came via a blog post that began with a reiteration of Tesla’s goal and its overarching “three-step master plan.”

In it, Musk said Tesla’s raison d’être has been mostly ignored by media portraying Tesla in a negative light.

Musk essentially said if people think it is making toys for the rich, that is a mischaracterization.

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His actual words were Tesla’s goal was “to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible.

“If we could have done that with our first product, we would have, but that was simply impossible to achieve for a startup company that had never built a car and that had one technology iteration and no economies of scale,” said Musk. “Our first product was going to be expensive no matter what it looked like, so we decided to build a sports car, as that seemed like it had the best chance of being competitive with its gasoline alternatives.”

Musk politely said he suspected “this could be misinterpreted as Tesla believing that there was a shortage of sports cars for rich people” but it built the Roadster and launched the Model S as premium products to launch a new paradigm.

Tesla’s goal is one that has not been lost on many of its fans – that it holds out promise for a new wave of electric cars priced closer to the average new car price in the $30,000 range and above.

Super Safe Car

Musk went on to cite National Fire Protection Association stats that he said indicate the Model S is safe in all conditions, including from fire due to accidents.

“There are now substantially more than the 19,000 Model S vehicles on the road that were reported in our Q3 shareholder letter for an average of one fire per at least 6,333 cars, compared to the rate for gasoline vehicles of one fire per 1,350 cars,” he said.

Amending a statement he made in October that gas-powered cars are five-times more likely to burn, Musk said this is now 4.5-times more likely after extrapolating this assertion from the numbers.

“By this metric, you are more than four and a half times more likely to experience a fire in a gasoline car than a Model S!” Musk said. “Considering the odds in the absolute, you are more likely to be struck by lightning in your lifetime than experience even a non-injurious fire in a Tesla.”

As for people actually being injured or killed in a car fire, Musk said among U.S. gas-powered car fires, there have been over 400 deaths and 1,200 injuries since Model S was launched.

Musk capped off the safety record assurance saying that the Model S has the lowest probability of injury of any car ever tested by the U.S. government.

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Actually, after Tesla issued a press release on the five-star crash test rating for the passenger compartment, NHTSA issued a corrective statement implying such assertions as Tesla made cannot be made.

NHTSA said five stars are five stars and there is no such thing as one five-star car being better than another the way it intends its grading system to be interpreted. NHTSA added that it explicitly instructs automakers on not going beyond stated limits of its grading system in using it for promotional purposes.

Without naming Tesla, NHTSA issued the statement shortly after Tesla issued a release claiming “5.4″ stars when only 5 was allowable under NHTSA rules. Tesla was roundly applauded for its perceptably safe passenger compartment.

What Is Next?

Musk’s latest blog post restating Tesla’s three-step plan master plan, and a new three-step plan to update warranty, software, and invite the government to investigate came as damage control, said Musk.

“All of these actions are taken in order to make clear the confidence we have in our product and to eliminate any misperceptions regarding the integrity of our technology and the safety of our cars,” said Musk in conclusion.

Nor did Musk specify all the negative perceptions floating out there, including a column by Bloomberg questioning Tesla’s accounting practices, among others.

Musk did cite a positive opinion piece by Automotive News, and Pandodaily.

While eyes are on Tesla, and Musk said he welcomes it to a point, the aim is to restore confidence and correct unfair reporting while questions remain.

Tesla and NHTSA have now conceded that some degree of risk exists to ignite a Model S due to “undercarriage strikes” but whether this concern should just fade away or require further action is yet to be determined.

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