A Tesla motor company car logo on a car in a dealership at the Dadeland Mall in Miami, Florida. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Washington — The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the agency is gathering information about a recent fire in a Tesla Motors electric car.
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said the agency is “collecting data” and talking to the Palo Alto-based startup about the incident, but he declined to say if the agency would open a formal investigation into the fire on a highway in Kent, Wash., that destroyed the vehicle.
Strickland said he expected to issue a “longer statement on the agency’s next steps.” The Tesla fire was one of the first things NHTSA’s defects team began looking at when they returned to work last week, Strickland said.
Because of the 16-day-government shutdown, NHTSA wasn’t able to send investigators to the scene to look at the vehicle. Since the shutdown ended Thursday, the agency has been working to review consumer complaints logged during the shutdown. It was forced to halt work on a number of pending investigations.
In 2011, NHTSA opened an investigation into fires in Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in a blog post Oct. 4 that the fire came after the Model S “traveling at highway speed struck a large metal object, causing significant damage to the vehicle. A curved section that fell off a semi-trailer was recovered from the roadway near where the accident occurred and, according to the road crew that was on the scene, appears to be the culprit. The geometry of the object caused a powerful lever action as it went under the car, punching upward and impaling the Model S with a peak force on the order of 25 tons. Only a force of this magnitude would be strong enough to punch a three-inch diameter hole through the quarter-inch armor plate protecting the base of the vehicle.”
He said the “fire caused by the impact began in the front battery module — the battery pack has a total of 16 modules — but was contained to the front section of the car by internal firewalls within the pack.”
Musk also suggested the fire could have been much worse in a gasoline-powered car.