Tuesday morning, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it would investigate two incidents (PDF) in which Tesla Model S sedans caught fire. Both times the cars hit debris on a highway and the undercarriage and batteries were damaged. (There was a third accident in Mexico, but being in a different country, it’s not in the NHTSA’s jurisdiction.)

The AP gets into details of the investigation:

US safety agency opens probe into Tesla firesThe probe affects more than 13,000 cars from the 2013 model year that were sold in the U.S. Tesla has sold about 19,000 of the cars worldwide. They start at $70,000 but often run more than $100,000.

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So what does it mean for the Palo Also-based carmaker? Bradley Berman, editor of PluginCars.com (and a one-time KQED contributor), said he’s not surprised by all the scrutiny Tesla’s been subjected to.

“It’s a rockstar company with a rockstar CEO,” he said. “And a beautiful, award-winning, expensive, fast vehicle. So that’s a magnet for attention.”

Berman said that while many more gas cars catch on fire each year, the investigation is justified. “The Tesla Model S has sold a few thousand vehicles, versus some electric cars out there that have sold in the tens of thousands that have not had this problem.”

Berman said some of the questions that come up for him are, how close is the battery to the front of the vehicle? Does the power of the car mean that people tend to drive it too fast? Is the material of the undercarriage providing enough protection, and should it be modified?

Bill Visnick, a senior editor at Edmunds.com said if he owned a Tesla, he wouldn’t be concerned. “It’s one of those wait and see situations,” he said. “But it is troubling because it is the same type of incident, and it is something that does seem to point to a need for some kind of action.

But, Visnick said, it’s too early to worry about Tesla’s reputation. “Tesla’s built up a tremendous amount of goodwill with the buying public, with the auto industry itself and really as a tech company.” he said. “Unless we see this expanded into something more endemic about the design of the car that would cause a full-blown recall, for instance. But there are recalls every day and consumers have become fairly sanguine about it all.”

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk wrote a blog post that highlights the Model S’s safety record. And he outlined three actions Tesla will take now: a software update that will make the cars stay higher off the ground when traveling at highway speeds, a request for the NHTSA investigation (though the NHTSA disputes that Tesla made that request) and an expansion of the warranty, to cover all car fires.

What Does a Federal Safety Investigation Mean for Tesla? 20 November,2013Molly Samuel


Molly Samuel

Molly Samuel joined KQED as an intern in 2007, and since then has worked here as a reporter, producer, director and blogger. Before becoming KQED Science’s Multimedia Producer, she was a producer for Climate Watch. Molly has also reported for NPR, KALW and High Country News, and has produced audio stories for The Encyclopedia of Life and the Oakland Museum of California. She was a fellow with the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism and a journalist-in-residence at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. Molly has a degree in Ancient Greek from Oberlin College and is a co-founder of the record label True Panther Sounds.

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