The attempts to exempt the company from responsibility are astonishing. To make matters worse, two new fires happened this past week: one after a flood, the other after a crash. Is that an excuse for these cars to catch fire, or is it another sign that Tesla has to improve the safety of these components?
The first blaze took place on September 29. A Tesla (Model 3, from what we can see in the pictures taken by RiverheadLOCAL) caught fire and affected other cars on a Calverton Enterprise Park runway. According to that website, Insurance Auto Auctions leased the runway from the Riverdale Community Development Agency to store vehicles considered a total loss after hurricane Ida.
The image shows a Model S close to that Model 3 badly damaged and other vehicles still on fire behind the Model 3 that may have started the incident. First responders said that five vehicles were affected by the blaze and that it did not have suspicious causes. That may help silence the ones that always claim these fires are arson.
The second incident happened on September 30. According to the Baltimore County Fire Department, the Tesla Model 3 crashed at 7:50 PM at the intersection of Charles Street and Towsontown Boulevard in Towson. No information on what caused the crash was revealed. If you happen to know the driver or any witness to the incident, please put them in touch with us.
The EV was leaking fluids and had a small fire underneath it. The driver “self-evacuated and was injured.” Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about the people that died in similar circumstances in Coral Gables on September 13.
Five minutes later, the fire was “fully-involved,” which required much greater efforts from the firefighters. Crews from the Towson, Brooklandville, Chestnut Ridge VFC, and Hillendale stations tried to extinguish the blaze for about two hours.
The Baltimore County Fire Department said that portable extinguishers were not enough to kill the fire, so they requested a foam unit from its hazmat (hazardous materials) division and “copious amounts of water.” According to the firefighters, that was necessary because “lithium ignites when exposed to oxygen,” which is not correct. Lithium aluminum hydride is pyrophoric, not lithium on its own.
What makes lithium-ion cells a worse problem for firefighters is that their electrolyte is flammable. That’s one more reason for companies to pursue solid-state batteries, which have a solid electrolyte. Apart from that, most lithium-ion chemistries use oxides, which end up providing oxygen for the flammable elements to burn without the help of outside air. If a defect or a dendrite causes a thermal runaway, you have a spontaneous EV fire. If an accident causes a thermal runaway, you have what we have seen with these two Teslas.
The discussion about EV fires is a long one. Tesla likes to say they are rare events, but so are EVs. We still have a reduced number of vehicles that run solely on electricity. When all cars are electric, as they will have to be in the near future, how will firefighters manage to put out fires that happen with them?
That’s what a Twitter user asked the BCVFA (Baltimore County Volunteer Firefighter’s Association). In this user's words, we can’t expect “this level of Emergency Service assets” for all fires. The association tagged Elon Musk and said they hope him to help develop a better response for such situations. So do we.
In fact, Tesla fires have been happening since Model S was released. Either due to accidents or to issues with the battery packs. We have not seen a recall to address the latter at any time. The former demands more protected battery packs.
Not long ago, Tesla and Musk said that the battery packs were waterproof. Despite that, water invaded these components in floods, which could cause short circuits. This is a strong possibility for the Tesla fire in Calverton and why quality control must be impeccable.
Regarding the crash in Baltimore, would there be a way to have safer battery packs in these situations? Even considering the multitude of different damages a vehicle could suffer, the answer is yes.
Ford has decided to put the battery pack for the F-150 Lightning between the rails of the chassis. It has protected it with “metal skid plates, underbody protection,” and a “unique exostructure which acts as a shield.”
Rivian went even further on that: its battery pack uses a carbon composite shell and a ballistic shield to resist any sort of puncture while off-roading. The cells are also protected by a waterproof material that allows Rivian EVs to ford up to 42.7 inches (1.08 meters).
It may be the case that the 4680 structural battery pack will be way more resistant than that on current Tesla products. According to what we know so far, the new cells will be inserted in a casting that will be highly resistant. The issue is that these cells are not ready yet and will probably take more time to be manufactured than we previously thought.
Supposing it was ready, it would not answer the question we once did here: are we making electric cars right? If we are not, Tesla just delivered 241,300 new EVs in Q3 2021 that miss a more robust battery pack. It has already produced more than 1 million vehicles.
What if these EVs keep catching fire, either by defects Tesla never discussed or by damages to the battery pack its design and quality control fail to prevent? We’ll keep reporting them just like we covered the Hyundai Kona Electric, Chevrolet Bolt EV, Volkswagen ID.3, and BYD Han fires. The EV shift will happen whether we like it or not. However, that’s no reason to believe early adopters volunteered to bear the price for that change on their own until we find the right way to do EVs.
Let’s hope @elonmusk can work with the fire service and together we can develop a better response.— Baltimore Co. Volunteer Firefighter’s Association (@BaltCoVolFire) October 1, 2021