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back to article 'Safest car ever made' Tesla Model S EV crashes and burns. Car 'performed as designed'

Pugnacious electric car maker Tesla Motors is embroiled in another media firestorm today, after one of its new Model S EVs - touted by the firm as being the safest car ever tested by US highway authorities - suffered a serious battery fire following an accident. Youtube Video Tesla has stated that the incident began when the …

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I don't think it's fair...

I don't think it's fair to mention that the fire fighters struggled to put out the fire and had to jack the car up, when it was simply because they didn't know what they were doing.

Even if you apply the "they did what usually works" principle, as soon as they realised they couldn't put it out they should have thought for a second and said "right, what exactly are we dealing with here" rather than just hacking away with an axe. Given the sort of stuff they put in car batteries, I would expect cracking the battery open with an axe to make things worse rather than better.

It's not the cars fault... the back of the car wasn't in flames and the fire-fighters could clearly see the cars make and model... they simply didn't know what they were doing, and went at it ham-fisted.

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

It's not fair to mention a thing that happened? He was talking about the firefighters using correct methods at that point, and stating that the battery was hard to extinguish. I'm imagining that blazing petrol-powered cars are also a bastard to put out.

It's the car's fault that it burst into flames, firefighters' initial cockup or no.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: I don't think it's fair...

"It's the car's fault", I think we should blame the driver too. You know like with guns.

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

Looking back, that kind of a silly comment. ;-) I was just responding to his earlier post. It's the designers' fault, of course.

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Flame

Re: I don't think it's fair...

" firefighters using correct methods at that point,"

I expect that firefighters would know better than to use water on any vehicle fire electric or internal combustion.

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

"I expect that firefighters would know better than to use water on any vehicle fire electric or internal combustion."

I expect that most firefighters would have a better understanding of the general principles of firefighting than some armchair interweb commentard.

Water is actually a damn good at putting out engine fires because it cools things down very quickly. The most important thing to do in a significant fire is to get the heat out. Once a big hunk of metal such as an engine is really hot, then flame suppression (eg. CO2) is not enough. As soon as the CO2 dissipates, a very hot engine will just burst into flames again. You need to get the temperature below the flash point and water does that very well.

This is not an effective method on a lithium battery fire (which is really a chemical fire rather than normal combustion).

It is easy to make the mistake. Very few people cruising up to a fire would see it as being different from any other car. Perhaps Teslas should be fitted with chemical hazmat stickers identifying the fire risk.

No doubt vehicle firefighting training will have to progress with the upsurge in EVs and hybrids.

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Childcatcher

Re: I don't think it's fair...

If my server room needs a hazmat sticker because the UPS has lead in it, then your car also need to be labelled properly. After all, LPG powered vehicles need proper signage in case of fire.

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Anonymous Coward

Alert system?

"The car's alert system signaled a problem and instructed the driver to pull over safely, which he did"

"Get out, get out, get out you fcuker or you will burn to death, get out, get out get out get out, now ruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuun!"

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

Sounds more like Telsa need to work with the fire authorities to find the best way to handle fires on their vehicles and then to make sure that fire-fighters in target market places know how to handle them. The fire crew arriving at this scene will have started off using the techniques they've been taught.

If a new kind of car is going to need a radically different way of fire-fighting, then there is going to need to be a whole lot more training needed all of the a sudden.

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

No matter how you look at it, that's a very long step: from "world's safest car" to "it really needs hazmat stickers".

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Alert

Re: I don't think it's fair...

Really needs a fire suppression unit in the battery compartment(s). Halon? CO2?

Plus firefighter training and firefighter aids as are being discussed, providing warnings and schematics of alt-fuel vehicles. It wouldn't do to apply the jaws of life to the 500 volt mains.

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

"I expect that firefighters would know better than to use water on any vehicle fire electric or internal combustion."

Clearly not in this case. The training has fallen behind the times, I'd suggest.

Anyway, I'd still rather have been involved in this fire than the average petrol one. Petrol vapour is horrible stuff, but we've been happy to have that in our cars for a century now.

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

"If my server room needs a hazmat sticker because the UPS has lead in it, then your car also need to be labelled properly. After all, LPG powered vehicles need proper signage in case of fire."

Mate, if cars had all the warning stickers on they'd have to have if they were anything else, fewer people would drive them!

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

"Really needs a fire suppression unit in the battery compartment(s). Halon? CO2?"

Sure. Let's do it to petrol cars, too. Except it'd put a chunk of cash on the price and (petrol) car manufacturers would rather pay the odd million here and there to settle when people die than they would do that.

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

I really hate to correct you, but the important thing in a fire is to remove one of the three components: Heat, Oxygen or Fuel. However, you are spot on that CO2 would only delay combustion for a very short time on a engine fire as it will simply disperse and allow oxygen back in.

You are also spot on re: Firefighters. They are trained in tackling fires and they know what their priorities are. Spraying down an electrical fire with water stops the heat from that fire from causing secondary combustion, meaning the fire is contained. They will be less concerned about the chemicals at that point: They want to get the fire contained first, then look at tackling the source.

And it sounds like they did exactly that: contain the fire, then tackle the chemical component.

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

'Clearly not in this case. The training has fallen behind the times, I'd suggest.'

I would suggest you go train as a volunteer fire fighter. Then you would know if the training was falling behind the times or not. You'll also find out if the equipment they're using is behind the times, too. After all, how do you know they were using just normal water and not water with chemical additives to make it safer to use in such fires. After all, all cars have batteries and electrical components, and a petrol fire is a chemical fire (liquid rather than solid, of cause).

As for petrol fires: Petrol used to contain lead to retard combustion, making it more efficient to burn. Remove the lead and the petrol becomes far more volatile. Hmm... and we went and removed the lead and didn't try replacing it with something else...

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

Watching my neighbors car have an internal combustion engine fire in his driveway, I can say that the water used by the firefighters worked extremely well in putting it out.

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Mushroom

Re: Alert system?

Nah, the granddaughter of Aliens' atmosphere processor:

"You now have 30 seconds to reach minimum safe distance..."

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WTF?

Re: I don't think it's fair...

It's not the cars fault...

It's the car's fault.

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

And strangely enough, considering the large number of gas cars that burst into flames in an accident, that means that when they say "world's safest car", only one bursting into flames out of - what is it now, 20,000 units? - still means that it's the world's safest car.

Oh yeah, and I couldn't help but notice that the car warned the driver about the damage and the need to get out. I don't think there's a MB out there with the same feature.

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

They wouldn't ever *have* to apply the jaws of life to the 500 volt mains. The entire battery and electrical system is *under* the car. The Jaws of Life are only used on the weak points of the car where you typically put the side-curtain airbags.

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Mushroom

Re: I don't think it's fair...

Lots of water is good for a burning Li-ion battery. The electricity has already turned into heat so it hardly matters that the water conducts a tiny bit. There's nothing to do but prevent the heat from spreading. It's likely that electric cars of the future will have a connector where firefighters can instantly flood the battery packs with water and activate discharging shunts on the cells.

A battery fire on a ship is different because you don't want to be standing in a pool of electrified water.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: I don't think it's fair...

Not seen too many Lead fires lately.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: I don't think it's fair...

Reminds me of the way they tried to handle the Dreamliner issues

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

"I would suggest you go train as a volunteer fire fighter."

I'd rather just pose it as a suggestion on a forum and wait until someone knowledgeable comes along to supply information, thanks. Not that I'd stand a chance of getting in, with the Fire Service essentially being a bit of a closed shop in these parts.

"Then you would know if the training was falling behind the times or not."

I would suggest that if the firefighters didn't realise what the issue was that there must surely be a training shortfall or a failure in procedure somewhere.

"After all, how do you know they were using just normal water and not water with chemical additives to make it safer to use in such fires. After all, all cars have batteries and electrical components, and a petrol fire is a chemical fire (liquid rather than solid, of cause)."

Better still, I'll ask a firefighting friend when I see him next week...

"As for petrol fires: Petrol used to contain lead to retard combustion, making it more efficient to burn. Remove the lead and the petrol becomes far more volatile. Hmm... and we went and removed the lead and didn't try replacing it with something else..."

That's not strictly true. The lead doesn't make it more efficient to burn; it stops det and your engine being damaged because of it. And it WAS replaced with alternatives: You engine isn't running on low RON fuel now that you don't have lead in it.

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

"I expect that most firefighters would have a better understanding of the general principles of firefighting than some armchair interweb commentard."

This armchair interweb commentard works with lithium batteries and knows that lithium + water = more fire.

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

Good grief don't let the Americans loose with the warning labels.

They're already reminded of the bleedin' obvious with the old "objects in the rear view mirror..." printing.

Can you imagine if they label every hazard?

Every door opening "Danger, do not shut fingers in door".

Every window "Do not lick glass when cold"

Every air vent "Do not stick fingers in air vents"

Rear seats could be woven with "Do not look at these whilst you are driving" in the cloth.

Then again, maybe all children should be labelled "These may distract you from driving. Remember to always gag and immobilise".

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Re: I don't think it's fair...

You're all missing the most import aspect of this story.

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Lithium + water?

Rather than an electrical fire per se, is this lithium batteries which won't calm down a whole heap if sprayed with water. Vague recollections of 3rd form chemistry and playing about with Lithium and its friends in a big bowl of water to get Hydrogen??

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Re: Lithium + water?

Correct. Water doesn't work because lithium will take the oxygen out of the water to burn, leaving hydrogen to burn with other oxygen. CO2 will not work because lithium will take the oxygen out of the CO2, leaving carbon to burn with other oxygen. Sand will not work because lithium will take the oxygen out of the SiO2. Foam generally contains water, so is no use for that reason.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Lithium + water?

That said, is water the correct response for a car (ie: Fuel) fire? I've seen demonstrations of what happens when you put water onto an oil fire in the case of chip pan and in the case of spilt diesel and it isn't good.

Giving the benefit of the doubt, could it have been water based foam?

Personally my car has a dry powder (bi-carb) extinguisher in it.

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Re: Lithium + water?

Sodium Bicarbonate doesn't work on lithium either. Where it does work, it works by releasing CO2 when heated up which displaces the oxygen. But as I explained earlier, lithium can burn in CO2.

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Boffin

Re: Lithium + water?

Not absolutely correct. As with many fires, the cause of the fire, and not just its fuel must be addressed to safely extinguish the flames. Choosing incorrectly can lead to much larger problems.

In the event of a lithium battery fire caused by thermal runaway in the cells, water is the first choice suppressant. It is the best suited to draining away the heat. Other suppressants may temporarily extinguish the flames through oxygen deprivation, but unless the heat component from the runaway is solved first the fire will resume in very, very short order. After the thermal runaway and initial flames have been suppressed with water other chemical suppressants may be safely used.

This case appears to be just a good old fashioned electrical fire so water was not the correct choice. However, the Dreamliner situation and in other known industrial accidents caused by lithium thermal runaway water is the best initial choice. This is even more critical in an aircraft or vessel in which escape is not safe and the fire must stay suppressed.

The biggest real risk with using water in a thermal runaway fire is that of hot metal slag being ejected from the water pressure and the busy chemical reaction taking place. This would obviously suck, but if it is happening in a place you can't escape from it is an acceptable risk.

As larger lithium batteries enter the consumer product stream safety and awareness will increase. In this case a well educated fire team would have had to make a judgement call as to the actual source if the fire. Even if this was done the water must be applied directly to the batteries to inhibit the runaway. Possibly this is what they were trying but misjudged the cause of the fire?

The upshot of this event is good. It provides for greater education opportunities for fire safety professionals. No one was hurt and now everyone can be better prepared.

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"Electrical fire"?

Does a burning battery without a ground loop pose the same hazard to firefighters using water as a fire involving grid electricity? I'd have expected the behaviour of the car's electrical systems to be very different.

Lewis's experience on ships, presumably metal ones, may not be completely relevant to this particular scenario either, but then he's got the experience and training and I don't...

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Re: "Electrical fire"?

I wouldn't think the hazards are anywhere near as bad in an automotive scenario, for a variety of reasons.

I'm not sure what the electrical system parameters are on a Tesla S but, in the event of a fire, the chances of the entire battery circuit remaining closed during the time it takes for fire safety personnel to arrive would be astronomically low.

There are certainly theoretical fringe cases one could construct, but overall it would be safer. The really great thing about a car fire is that if everyone is clear of the vehicle you don't have to put it out.

If there were serious safety concerns about electrical or chemical hazards you could concentrate on keeping other things from catching fire and just let the car burn. No modern car is salvageable, economically, after a serious fire and you can't move a burned out car for hours anyway. Just watch it burn. Maybe pose for some hilarious pictures and be chuffed nobody is inside.

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Re: "Electrical fire"?

Perhaps it's worth mentioning that in my many years of driving, I've had accidents and I've seen a lot of accidents, some very nasty, but never a fire. I don't think fires in cars are common (as suggested by the article).

The only fires I've seen have been the results of something spilt from a Lorry.

I'm not saying they don't happen, they clearly do, just that it isn't common.

I appreciate that people may not have this impression if they watch a lot of Hollywood films where cars catch fire and blow up with apparent ease. Perhaps Hollywood is right but only American cars react like this :-)

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Re: Lithium + water?

Will a big towel do it?

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Re: "Electrical fire"?

I've seen a car in flames on a motorway once in my lifetime, and a couple of buses on fire. The bendy buses in London had a fault that caused them to catch fire when they were first introduced.

I've seen other burnt out vehicles, but that was due to people delibarately setting them on fire rather than a fire caused by an accident or vehicle fault.

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Re: "Electrical fire"?

Cars catch on fire while in use, it is not rare or weird. Automotive fire safety has improved a lot since 1980 when there were 456,000 highway vehicle fires in the US alone. In 2011 there were 187,500 highway vehicle fires in the US.

http://www.nfpa.org/research/fire-statistics/the-us-fire-problem/highway-vehicle-fires

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Re: "Electrical fire"?

"The really great thing about a car fire is that if everyone is clear of the vehicle you don't have to put it out."

If you don't put it out you have to repair the road after it burns out.

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Re: "Electrical fire"?

Whole vehicle fires destroy asphalt roads anyway, even with suppression. Concrete roadways aren't usually harmed by vehicle fires. It all evens out; asphalt is cheap to fix, but easily damaged, concrete is expensive to fix but difficult to damage.

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Re: Lithium + water?

The fire service in the UK use a chemical mix in the water tanks that make it more a hybrid of water and foam - it forms a skin over the liquid fuel that cuts off oxygen. Not sure if the American fire service does the same, and I'm not sure which service responded to this particular fire.

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Re: Lithium + water?

The water will damp down the area to contain the fire. Sure, lithium might* still burn merrily in the water, but the plastics, the metals, the paint, the foam seating, and anything else around that could catch due to the heat from the fire will not.

Once contained, the fire fighters can then go in and tackle the chemical component, which probably does need specialist kit to tackle, but they managed with what they've got. Powder extinguishers don't contain oxygen which could be why they used that in the end, once they got the lithium out of the battery so they could smother it.

*I'm not a chemist - he's sat next door and is busy at the moment. I'll ask him later about this.

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Re: Lithium + water?

You mean when pure lithium is on fire, right?

The Lithium in lithium-ion batteries is far from pure. Also, it only makes about 2% of the battery's mass. Which is what explains why firefighters were able to put out this fire with normal CO2 fire extinguishers.

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Re: Lithium + water?

There is no pure lithium in a Li-Ion battery. In thermal runaway all the constituents for fire are within the cell. CO2 or foam will have no effect. Water is the most effective extinguishant - the more the better - to kill the heat (the only thing you can control in a Li-Ion fire)

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Re: "Electrical fire"?

"Hollywood films where cars catch fire and blow up with apparent ease. "

Nah, those are special cars just for Hollywood. Carrying a belt of ignition pistons and a metric fuckton of fuel. Sometimes solvent, judging by the colour of the flames.

But ordinary cars also catch fire. It is a fair percentage of accidents. Over 100 000 per year in US, and that is excluding Pintos, which have merrily burned away years ago.

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Re: "Electrical fire"?

Aye, US numbers were right here in the comments.

Don Jefe: "Automotive fire safety has improved a lot since 1980 when there were 456,000 highway vehicle fires in the US alone. In 2011 there were 187,500 highway vehicle fires in the US."

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FAIL

But... batteries are packed into the whole of the floor!

I recently looked at a Tesla in a showroom that was in a mall in the US. They had a car in there, and a bare rolling chassis, along with samples of the batteries used. The whole of the floorpan is packed with small, almost 16550-size, batteries. Literally thousands of 'em.

Beautiful car. Brilliantly practical packaging, and if the supercharger network takes off the range becomes a non-issue if you can charge in 20 minutes. (Full charge on standard plug would take 3 days IIRC...). The interior is fantastic, and the centre console is a really good rethink. I would be seriously tempted by one, despite being a fully paid up petrolhead.

I asked what would happen with batteries in a fire, and was told that they're practically inert. I did think that was a little odd. I asked what happened if they needed to change a faulty battery unit, and was told they don't fail. As I've got an expoded Macbook pro battery on my desk next to me, I have doubts.

If Tesla is trying to say this happened at the front where the battery is located, something doesn't add up. The batteries are packed into the floor, front to back, on the Tesla S. The batteries are *everywhere*.

I suppose the fact the fire was somewhat contained means they have managed to isolate things, but this is icky nasty stuff that's burning. Mind you, so are fossil fuels, but we're better at managing fires involving those after years of experience...

I'll definitely be watching to see how TEsla handle this. Honesty is paramount, and the 'where the batteries are' line doesn't sit at all well with what Tesla say, and what I saw.

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Re: But... batteries are packed into the whole of the floor!

"... and if the supercharger network takes off the range becomes a non-issue if you can charge in 20 minutes"

Except that the domestic grid is already not fit for purpose to hear some tell it, and this is the first year in my twenty years of home-ownership in which my house did *not* suffer a power outage just for being hooked up to LIPA, leading me to suspect that the problem with battery powered cars on Long Island - which one might naturally assume was an ideal place to deploy the technology given that most driving is short-hop well within the charge range of a Tesla - will be that they end up stranded in garages day after day when the LIPA-operated grid has no juice for them.

As for putting the batteries next to the floor, I always thought this would end in tears. One look at the New York moonscape masquerading as a road network should lead you to do so too. Hell, I shuddered when I saw an old 1963 Morris Mini Minor barreling down Straight Path last year because I knew from personal experience there is only 4 inches of clearance between the road and the sump fins on that car and in New York a 4 inch excursion in road surface height is par for the course, especially after the snow plows have had a go.

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Re: But... batteries are packed into the whole of the floor!

Ok, so the article has been updated quite a lot. Better explanation on the isolation; wonder why showroom staff didn't know that? If this didn't end up in a smoking crater and didn't end up releasing lots of toxic stuff then, perversely, i think it could be classed as a successful containment.

what caused the fire, and details on how spread it really was will still be interesting.

and i completely agree with the point that leccy cars will need a different approach to generation and distribution: micro reactors at recharge stations? (but if that's possible just give me my Mr Fusion!)

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