Electric Car Safety Risks Different From Gas-Powered Vehicles: NHTSA

Regulators are discovering that electric cars have entirely different risks and safety concerns than gasoline-powered vehicles, as demonstrated by the growing pains of Tesla Motors Inc. and its popular electric cars.  

At the Detroit Auto Show, in an interview with Bloomberg news, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) deputy administrator David Friedman indicated that electric cars were no less safe than gas powered cars, but that they pose different risks.

The statement came as his agency investigates Tesla Model S vehicle fires reported in at least two cars that appear to have been caused by the battery punctures. It also comes just days after Tesla announced that it is upgrading wall-charger adapters after some complaints of overheating.

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On January 10, Tesla issued a press release announcing that it will provide customers with upgraded charging software and adapters.

“A variety of factors such as corrosion, physical damage to receptacles, or inappropriate wiring or installation of electrical outlets can cause higher than normal electrical resistance when using the Universal Mobile Connector (“UMC”) NEMA 14-50 adapters to charge Tesla Model S vehicles,” the company warned. “When charging, higher than normal electrical resistance connections to external energy sources may cause excessive heating of the adapter.”

Tesla said it released a software update in December, which would make the Model S onboard charging system automatically reduce the charging current by 25% if it detected unexpected power fluctuations. The software upgrade was done wirelessly and can be confirmed by customers tapping the touchscreen and verifying their vehicle is running software version 5.8.4 or later. However, the company is also replacing the physical adapters as well.

Tesla officials have resisted and pushed back against claims that the changes represent a power adapter recall.

The NHTSA started investigating the Model S for safety issues involving battery fires in November 2013, after accident reports raised concerns. Tesla battery fires began after videos surfaced of flames coming from vehicles after impacts. One report received in Mexico indicated the vehicles burst into blames after a high speed collision, but safety regulators are deeming this incident to be isolated and outside of the scope of the investigation. Another fire incident involved a Tennessee driver, who allegedly rode over a tow hitch, causing the undercarriage to be impacted.

The NHTSA initially began looking into the reports on November 13, and has decided to launch a federal defect investigation to include an evaluation of the battery’s size, shape, chemical makeup and crash tests results of the potentially affected models.

Critics have suggested that the Tesla Model S lithium battery may pose a risk of fire if it is punctured. The battery is located near the underside of the vehicle, potentially making it vulnerable in automobile accidents and when the vehicle is driven over debris.

The company faces a class action securities lawsuit from investors who say they suffered losses because Tesla was not fully forthcoming about the safety of its vehicles.

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