Skip to main content

Tesla holds huge promise, despite flaws

By John O'Dell
updated 7:44 AM EST, Mon December 2, 2013
Tesla Model S
Tesla Model S
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tesla's Model S electric cars have caught fire three times in recent months
  • John O'Dell: We need to know whether there's a flaw that needs to be corrected
  • But it's wrong to use this to question viability of the company or electric cars, he says
  • O'Dell: Electric cars are new and different, but they shouldn't be target for suspicion

Editor's note: John O'Dell is senior green car editor at Edmunds.com, an online resource for car shopping and automotive information. Edmunds.com has purchased a Tesla Model S for long-term review purposes. Follow the website on Twitter: @edmunds

(CNN) -- There were headlines when one of Tesla's Model S electric cars caught fire in late October after the battery case was pierced by a piece of road debris. There were bigger headlines, and much speculation, when within six weeks, a second and then a third Model S fire occurred in the wake of accidents.

The fires are regrettable and must be investigated. No one is suggesting otherwise. We all need to know whether there's a flaw in the Model S that must be corrected.

But to use these incidents to question the viability of Tesla as a company is wrong. This is a company that has achieved the remarkable in launching a new automobile, a new propulsion technology and a new automobile manufacturing enterprise in just a few short years and against very long odds.

John O\'Dell
John O'Dell

Tesla's brilliant but often blustery chairman, Elon Musk, quickly came to the defense of his company's groundbreaking vehicle, going so far as to claim that Tesla asked the government to investigate the cause of the fires -- a claim that National Highway Traffic Safety Agency Administrator David Strickland disputes. NHTSA is investigating, Strickland said, but the agency made that decision on its own, with no request from the automaker.

News about the fires has been overtaken by the announcement of NHTSA's investigation, the squabble between Musk and Strickland and the tumble in the price of Tesla's stock as investors began distancing themselves from a company that until those three fires had been a Wall Street darling.

The whole thing is a shame. This has become much more than a query into a very few vehicle fires. Electric cars have been politicized and many are taking the Tesla fires as a sign that electric vehicles are too new, too different and too dangerous to be allowed on our roads.

Additionally, some in the investment community and a few politicians critical of Tesla and other electric vehicle developers for using government loans have made the fires a referendum on Tesla itself. (Tesla, which received loans from the Department of Energy's new technology program, repaid its loans nine years early.)

On GPS, Musk talks about future of Tesla
On GPS, Musk talks Tesla car safety

Tesla has won the backing of two big players, Toyota and Daimler, which have ownership stakes in the company. Whether it remains independent or eventually is absorbed by another carmaker, it is unlikely to end up on the scrap heap.

It may transpire that Tesla needs to redesign its cars -- or at least the location or shielding of the batteries -- in order to help prevent further fires. But to turn that into an indictment of electric vehicles in general would be wrong as well.

The two Tesla fires in the United States occurred when their battery cases were pierced by metal objects struck when the vehicles were moving at high speeds. The third fire, in Mexico, occurred when a speeding driver lost control and hit a stone wall.

Yet while a Tesla's battery is directly beneath the car's passenger cabin, the flames were channeled to the front, where an engine would be if Teslas had gas engines. This is part of the Model S safety design. The passenger cabins didn't burn. The cars' safety systems warned the drivers to pull over and get out because something was amiss.

The same type of accident involving a conventional gasoline-fueled vehicle might not have resulted in a fire. But think of the damage a hefty metal trailer hitch or length of scrap iron could do after piercing a conventional vehicle's relatively thin floor and entering the passenger cabin. It's not a pretty picture.

The location of the Tesla's battery pack may well have saved one or both drivers from terrible injury in the road debris incidents, even though the cars burned.

Meantime, a typical conventional car with 15 gallons of gas on board carries the explosive power of 210 sticks of dynamite. But most of us drive around all day long blissfully ignoring that deadly potential. Gasoline is the devil we know, and familiarity lets us overlook its flaws.

Electric cars, though, are new and different and challenge the status quo. That makes them a target for suspicion and for criticism. We are not comfortable with things we don't know.

We won't know until NHTSA completes its investigation whether the design of the Model S is inadequate. We should wait until then before contemplating obituaries -- for Tesla or for the electric vehicle.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John O'Dell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 6:48 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 4:49 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT