Auto Outlook: Feds look into 3rd Tesla Model S fire in six weeks

By AL SWANSON, UPI Auto Writer
Tesla Model S (Photo Courtesy of Tesla Motorsm Inc.)
1 of 5 | Tesla Model S (Photo Courtesy of Tesla Motorsm Inc.)

The third battery fire involving a Tesla Model S in six weeks has drawn the attention of the watchdog National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The federal agency sent investigators to Smyrna, Tenn., outside Nashville, last week to examine the charred body of a Model S that caught fire after hitting a trailer hitch in the middle of a lane on Interstate 24. The driver exited the vehicle unharmed, but the fire is similar to an Oct. 1 Tesla blaze in Kent, Wash., near Seattle, in which metal debris was involved.


The second Model S fire occurred Oct. 18 in Merida, Mexico, where NHTSA does not have jurisdiction.

The agency had said it would not open formal investigation after the Washington state fire was blamed on a metal road rod piercing the armored bottom of the 4,600-pound car into the front battery. But consumer advocates are calling for a review of the safety of the $69,000 to $100,000 all-electric sedan.


"Three fires is a big number out of 19,000 [sold]," said Clarence Ditlow, head of the Center for Auto Safety. "They have to open an investigation. I would fall out of my chair if they didn't."

Tesla co-founder Elon Musk reported the Mexico fire and said the California company thinks all three blazes were caused by crashes not battery problems.

"There's no reason for a recall," he said at a conference sponsored by The New York Times Dealbook blog. "If you read the headlines, it sounds like Teslas have a greater propensity to catch fires than other cars. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth."

"NHTSA is in close communication with Tesla and local authorities gathering information about the incident to determine if additional action is necessary," the agency said in a statement.

The Tesla Model S earned a top crash-test rating from NHTSA, and raves from Motor Trend and Consumer Reports magazines, but some safety experts say the position of its battery on the underside of the vehicle makes the pack vulnerable to road debris.

Growing pains aside, Musk is looking to the future. He told CNNMoney Tesla's next vehicle could be a full-size pickup to compete with Ford's F-150 in 2018.


"If you're trying to replace the most gasoline miles driven, you have to look at what people are buying," Musk said. "That's the best selling car in America. If people are voting that's their car, then that's the car we have to deliver."

Tesla already has an SUV in development, the Model X, that will begin production in late 2014.

"We have never had a serious injury or death in any of our cars," he said. "Maybe there is a car as safe as the Model S, but there is certainly not a car that is safer."

Energy-conscious Ford plans offer a fuel-efficient F-150 pickup that runs on liquefied natural gas.

eGolf Volkswagen's first electric car in U.S.

Germany's Volkswagen debuts its first plug-in electric car in the United States at the Los Angeles Auto Show this week.

The eGolf is a battery-powered model of the VW Golf. The eGolf has a 700-pound lithium-ion battery and 115-horsepower electric motor with a top speed of 87 mph. The car has a range of 70- to 90 miles on a single charge with three driving modes, Normal, Eco and Eco+.

A unique roadside assistance program will tow the car to the nearest charger if the driver runs low on battery power within 100 miles of home and pay for a taxi ride to home or work while the car recharges.


"The plan covers unlimited events," Volkswagen said.

The eGolf is expected to reach showrooms late next year. VW added the option of its turbocharged TDI Clean Diesel engine in the 2013 Golf.

Brazil to get Ford Ka Concept

Ford's new world car concept, the Ka, will debut in Brazil, where the small car was designed, the Dearborn, Mich., auto giant said.

"This product is so important to us globally," said Joe Hinrichs, Ford's president of the Americas.

The five-passenger Ka Concept was introduced Wednesday at Ford's Northeast Industrial Complex in Camacari, Brazil, The Detroit News reported.

The entry-level sedan is smaller than a subcompact Ford Fiesta and will be priced near the current Ka, which starts around $12,000.

Mazda investigates auto-braking crash in Japan

Mazda is investigating a crash involving a CX-5 SUV equipped with an automatic-braking system.

The accident happened during a test drive in Fukaya City, Japan, last Sunday and injured a customer and a dealership employee, the Detroit Free Press said.

The SUV was being driven by the customer when it plowed though a urethane barrier in the dealer's parking lot set up to demonstrate the vehicle's auto-brake technology.

Mazda has offered the laser sensor automatic breaking system -- called Smart City Brake Support -- since 2012 as an optional feature. The laser detects obstacles in front of the car and a computer applies the brakes without the driver reacting.


"For any safety function, it's impossible to be 100 percent free of accidents," a Tokyo auto parts analyst at IHS Automotive told the Free Press.

Smart Brake Support is part of the automaker's technology/safety package.

GM to offer AT&T Internet for 2015 models

Buyers of 2015 GM vehicles will be able to sign up for 4G LTE mobile Internet.

The No. 1 Detroit automaker has joined forces with AT&T and will offer speedy Internet connections on most vehicles sold in the United States and Canada via GM's OnStar services with data through AT&T WiFi inside the vehicle, The Detroit News reported.

Mobile Internet service via an LTE modem is expected to be available in mid-2014.

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