Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) shares were rising again on Thursday despite the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration’s ongoing probe into the Model S fire that occurred October 1.
The agency announced Tuesday that it is in the process of studying the blaze, asserting that it will soon decide whether to open a formal investigation. The news caused Tesla shares to fall early in the week as investors demonstrated reignited concern that consumers would question the true safety of lithium-ion batteries.
Faced with renewed investor anxiety, CEO Elon Musk has worked to assuage apprehension once again. He was the subject of a Bloomberg Television interview on Thursday, during which he reinforced the unusual nature of the fire and laughed off rivals’ attempts to capitalize on it.
Musk talked to Bloomberg Television’s Guy Johnson at the opening of the Tesla’s first retail store in London, and when asked about the cause of the fire, the CEO said, “We have a 6-millimeter thick armor plate on the bottom of the car and it actually punched through that armor plate into the battery pack and crushed several of the battery cells.”
Musk continued: “It took several minutes, but eventually those cells caught fire. A few of the modules of the battery pack burned, so that’s what happened. But the driver was able to pull to the side of the road, get out, and call the fire department, and there were no injuries or anything. Oh, and I should point out that he has bought another Model S.”
Musk, known for his quick wit and easygoing nature, was in good spirits at the interview despite consumers and investors’ relentless questioning about the blaze. In fact, he seemed confident in his conviction that Tesla buyers will recognize that the fire was only the result of a series of bizarre and unfortunate events.
The CEO told Bloomberg Television that he understands his new technology gets more attention than current machinery, admitting that the lithium-ion battery problems in Boeing’s (NYSE:BA) 787 Dreamliners don’t help his cause, but Musk also was quick to point out the differences between the Model S’s incident and the recent Dreamliner fire.
He said: “The issue with the Boeing lithium pack is not that it caught fire, but that is spontaneously caught fire — for no reason. That’s the issue. There was a reason, but it’s not like there was a crash or somebody shot it or anything like that.”
Musk went on to say: “It was just a normal flight and it just caught fire. So, in our case, it was hit by a large piece of metal at high speed. And if that were to have — say — punctured a gasoline tank or gasoline supply line, the car would have burned to the ground.”
Musk has a point, and it backs the argument the CEO made in his blog post to consumers following the fire. On October 4, he vehemently argued that electric cars are still safer than traditional gas-powered vehicles, writing: “Had a conventional gasoline car encountered the same object on the highway, the result could have been far worse. A typical gasoline car only has a thin metal sheet protecting the underbody, leaving it vulnerable to destruction of the fuel supply lines or fuel tank, which causes a pool of gasoline to form and often burn the entire car to the ground.
“In contrast, the combustion energy of our battery pack is only about 10 percent of the energy contained in a gasoline tank and is divided into 16 modules with firewalls in between. As a consequence, the effective combustion potential is only about 1 percent that of the fuel in a comparable gasoline sedan.”
That’s Musk’s story, and it sounds like he’s sticking to it. Nothing seems to frazzle the CEO — not even when Bloomberg Television’s Johnson brought up Volkswagen boss Martin Winterkorn’s reaction to the fire, saying Winterkorn was “startled.” Musk responded: “I mean, VW literally has several thousand car fires a year. Yeah, so I’m not sure why he would be startled by one in an electric car.”
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