Will GM experts share their wisdom with Tesla to make the Model S less prone to fires? That’s the question I put to GM’s Chief of Electrified Vehicles, Pam Fletcher last week at the Churchill Club in Silicon Valley.
You’ve no doubt heard that three fires have been reported in Tesla Model S in the last five weeks. As we all know, three’s a trend. Granted, they weren’t episodes of random spontaneous combustion. Instead they were ignited by one high-impact crash and two high-speed encounters with metal debris which acted like a “pole vault” to puncture the undercarriage of the car and hence the battery. Although Tesla’s Elon Musk has declared, there won’t be a recall, it’s almost certain the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will investigate. What needs to be done to make Teslas more impervious to battery puncturing road debris?
As you’ll see in the video, Pam Fletcher confirms that GM has sold 58,000 Chevy Volts since its launch in 2010 and after 300 million miles on the road, not one has had a similar fate to Tesla’s Model S. She acknowledges that there were fire issues in 2011 at the crash-testing phase, but emphasises no real-world incidents similar to the Model S have occurred.
Fires, Electric Cars and Achilles Heels
First some background. In 2011, safety regulators investigated Chevy Volt crash tests resulting in one battery pack catching fire and one smoking and emitting sparks. The troubling issue was the week-long delay between the crash test and the battery pack catching fire.
During our interview, Fletcher confirms that after the investigation, GM made no change to the battery cells, but did put “some additional reinforcement on the outside of the battery.”
It also implemented a process with first responders that includes depowering of the battery after a severe crash.
Ironically, Tesla got the highest safety ranking from regulators and has a first responders guide in place, however all parties seemed oblivious to the vehicle’s Achilles’ Heel. It obviously needs more durable undercarriage protection to prevent any more fiery “pole vaulting” episodes. To date, Elon Musk has been strongly resistant to such an approach. A recall will taint not only Tesla’s award winning brand, but entail extra costs and manufacturing delays for this relatively small auto company. To make matters worse, extra reinforcement will increase the weight of the Model S, and the extra pounds will have a knock-on effect on the vehicle’s range.
But it looks like Tesla’s Elon Musk may have to get some tips from GM on adequate car underbelly protection or find his own solutions.
It’s unlikely Tesla will change the configuration of its batteries. According to Reuters, Tesla’s battery pack stretches across the base of the vehicle and is made up of small lithium-ion battery cells, like those used in laptops. By contrast, GM uses large-format battery cells in a T-shape in the center of the Chevy Volt.
Fletcher was eager to move past fiery discussions and talk about adoption rates and “getting to scale.” She described the newly unveiled Cadillac ELR (a luxury electric hybrid based on the Chevy Volt) which will be available for test drives this week at the LA Auto Show. We also discussed autonomous cars, why EV adoption rates are so high in Silicon Valley; what to expect from the next generation Chevy Volt; and what surprised her about the thousands of Volt drivers on the road today.