Tesla Crash: Model S May Have Had Shields to Prevent Battery Fire

Stolen Tesla Crash - H - 2014
Associated Press

The headline-generating collision in West Hollywood on July 4 involving a stolen Model S sheds light on why no one has yet been killed in a Model S.

It is a measure of Tesla's formidable buzz that a stolen-car story involving no celebrities or deaths — albeit accompanied by July 4-worthy fireworks — makes international news. 

The high-speed crash of a Model S early Friday in West Hollywood that split the car in two and may have caused its lithium-ion battery to erupt in flames received coverage in Bloomberg News, the U.K.'s Daily Mail, USA Today, and dozens of other far-flung media outlets. 

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A subsequent, deadly crash later the same day involving a Model S that rear-ended a Toyota Corolla in Palmdale, Calif., killing the Toyota's driver and two child passengers, also received extensive coverage. 

Granted, July 4 is a proverbial slow news day, and Tesla's previous difficulties with the Model S's batteries igniting after two of the cars stuck debris drew the attention of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 

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According to NHTSA statistics, approximately 30,000 fatal crashes and 1.5 million injury crashes occur in the U.S. annually, or about 4,000 per day. And while both July 4 Tesla accidents involved unusual circumstances — a high-speed chase in the first and multiple fatalities in the second — none of the other crashes the same day made a measurable ripple in the national and international media.

After the earlier incidents, Tesla CEO Elon Musk pointed out that the two Model S fires drew disproportionate coverage given that there were 200,000 fires in gasoline-powered cars the same year.

Meanwhile, the fact that the drivers of both Teslas in the July 4 crashes survived — the driver in the Palmdale crash received only minor injuries — is cited as further evidence of the Model S safety. 

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In remarks to shareholders in June, Musk boasted that no one had been killed in a Model S despite the cars having been driven a total of 344 million miles. He stated that no one in a Model S crash has sustained "a serious permanent injury — and there have been some crazy crashes," Musk said. "There was one guy who drove through two concrete walls at 110 mph."

Following the battery fires, Tesla reinforced the Model S with three underbody shields made from aluminum and titanium to prevent debris from compromising the battery pack and starting a fire. All Teslas made since March 6 have the shielding; cars manufactured before can be retrofitted free of charge. 

It was unclear whether the Model S that caught fire after the West Hollywood crash had the shields, but it was stolen from a Los Angeles Tesla store and was reported to be a new model.