Tesla Cleared in Federal Safety Inquiry

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Mar 28, 2014

Tesla Motors had a good day Friday, as the grey cloud of a four-month federal safety investigation finally lifted. In a bad run beginning last October, two Teslas caught fire after hitting objects in the road, and a third after ramming through a fence and hitting a tree. And two garaged Model S cars have gone up in flames, for still-undetermined reasons.

The Model S: Exonerated by the feds. (Tesla photo)
The Model S: Exonerated by the feds. (Tesla photo)

But on March 28 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that it is closing the investigation, having found no “defect trend.” According to the agency:

ODI believes impacts with road debris are normal and foreseeable. In this case, Tesla’s revision of vehicle ride height and addition of increased underbody protection should reduce both the frequency of underbody strikes and the resultant fire risk. A defect trend has not been identified. Accordingly, the investigation is closed. The closing of the investigation does not constitute a finding by NHTSA that a safety-related defect does not exist, and the agency reserves the right to take further action if warranted by new circumstances.

Ahhhh. That’s the sound of relief coming out of Tesla’s Palo Alto, California headquarters. A similar sound could be heard on Wall Street, where Tesla stock soared after the news—it was $211 last time I checked, up two percent.
It was not coincidental that, hours before the NHTSA news broke, Tesla announced that it would install titanium underbody shields on new Model S cars, and offer them free as a retrofit to current owners. Elon Musk himself announced the news, in characteristic fashion. We did it for your peace of mind, he said, not because the cars were unsafe:

As the empirical evidence suggests, the underbody shields are not needed for a high level of safety. However, there is significant value to minimizing owner inconvenience in the event of an impact and addressing any lingering public misperception about electric vehicle safety. With a track record of zero deaths or serious, permanent injuries since our vehicles went into production six years ago, there is no safer car on the road than a Tesla. The addition of the underbody shields simply takes it a step further.

Soon after the fires, Tesla announced a software fix that would no longer let its cars lower their ride height (for better aerodynamics) on the highway. I had endorsed the ride height fix in a November story, and added that some kind of protective shielding might be a good idea, too, since the fires started because foreign objects pierced the battery box. Tesla has not taken both steps.
More battery fires could happen, but this is a pretty clean exoneration. The Tesla steamroller is back on track. The company is doing its level best to prove you can take a Tesla just about anywhere, with cross-country drives along its coast-to-coast Supercharger route. If you’re just tuning in, there are now free 480-volt chargers from the company up and down the coasts, and east-west, too.

Norman Hajjar is on his way across America, 12,000 miles via Tesla. (Recargo photo)
Norman Hajjar is on his way across America, 12,000 miles via Tesla. (Recargo photo)

Testing that network now is an endeavor launched by charging app Recargo. Driver Norman Hajjar, taking off from Portland, Oregon, is trying to break a world’s record for most miles taken by an EV. He says that the Epic Electric American Roadtrip will cover 12,000 miles over 20 days. The current record is only 4,000 miles.

Hajjar, who is managing director of Recargo’s EV analytics, will stay connected. It’s 2014, after all. The Roadtrip will include a live Twitter feed, a photostream, a blog with video posts, plus a Reddit AMA. You can follow the route (which includes corner states
Washington, Maine, Florida and California) via a live GPS tracker.

The 12,000-mile route takes in both coasts and the Tesla Superchargers across the country. (Epic photo)
The 12,000-mile route takes in both coasts and the Tesla Superchargers across the country. (Epic photo)

Hajjar was in Portland ready to take off when we spoke briefly. "It's going to be a blast," he said. "People see EVs as eccentric and quirky, but journeys like this show that they've arrived." He pointed out that he's not spending any money on gas--or electricity either, since the Superchargers are free to Tesla owners. Hajjar previously did a 3,000-mile Mexico to Canada trip in his Model S. You think he'd get tired of being behind the wheel, but no. "That trip was trouble-free," he said. Hajjar also called Musk's retrofit of undershields on the Model S "a brilliant move." Since he's in marketing, he should know.

This roadtrip isn’t an official Tesla event, but I’m sure the company doesn’t mind the publicity. The Big Three have had a 100-year head start in name recognition, but at this rate Tesla is catching up fast. Is this really the first successful volume auto startup since the 1920s? It’s still a long way to the company’s goal of 500,000 cars a year, but the stars have so far aligned.

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