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Tesla's Model S tweaked wirelessly following battery fire complaints

Posting in Transportation

Tesla Motors has responded to a federal investigation concerning two Model S battery fires by updating the cars remotely.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has launched an inquiry into the electric vehicles (EVs) after batteries caught fire. In one case, a driver's car apparently caught fire after going over debris -- denting the battery pack -- and other cars have experienced "undercarriage strike with metallic roadway debris."

In response to the investigation, CEO Elon Musk wrote in a blog post that an update is soon to be transmitted wirelessly which will automatically raise the car's height when it is traveling at highway speeds. The automaker chief says the update is "about reducing the chances of underbody impact damage, not improving safety."

Musk says that "there should also be some reasonable limit to how high such a standard should be, and we believe that this has been vastly exceeded in recent media coverage." While there have been over 400 deaths and approximately 1,200 serious injuries according to 2012 NFPA data involving a quarter of a million gasoline car fires, there has been only three Model S fires -- none of which have caused serious injuries or deaths.

"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," Musk writes. "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 says that while the safety record is exemplary, the automaker will still make changes. A wireless update to the air suspension will raise the car's height, and in January another software update will give drivers control of the air suspension ride height transitions.

In addition, Tesla has requested that the U.S. agency conduct a full investigation into the incidents, and so while the automaker thinks design flaws are "unlikely," if anything can be done to improve occupant fire safety, changes will be applied to new cars and free refits completed for those already on the road. Finally, warranty covering fires will now be applied, even in the case of driver error. Musk finishes:

"Given that the incidence of fires in the Model S is far lower than combustion cars and that there have been no resulting injuries, this did not at first seem like a good use of NHTSA's time compared to the hundreds of gasoline fire deaths per year that warrant their attention.

However, there is a larger issue at stake: if a false perception about the safety of electric cars is allowed to linger, 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."

Via: Wired | Tesla

Image credit: Tesla

— By on November 20, 2013, 5:29 AM PST

Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure