Tesla Car Fires Spark Federal Investigation

CEO Elon Musk offers car fire warranty, investigation could mean car recall.

Emergency workers respond to a fire on a Tesla Model S electric car in Smyrna, Tenn., on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013 .
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Federal regulators are investigating the electronic car company Tesla to see whether the car's electric battery is safe enough to avoid a recall, following three accidents that set its Model S on fire, officials said Tuesday.

[READ: Tesla CEO Elon Musk Slams Coverage of Electric Car Fires]

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a release it is investigating "undercarriage strikes" during two of those accidents in Washington state and Tennessee, in which strikes on the battery located beneath the passenger side may have set the car on fire. The third accident occurred in Mexico. The regulator explained in its announcement that there were no injuries in each incident, as the battery monitoring system of the Model S provided visible and audible warnings that encouraged the drivers to stop an exit the car before the fires.

Tesla chief executive officer Elon Musk said via the company's blog on Tuesday he encouraged the NHTSA to complete its investigation, and in the meantime he announced three steps in response to the fires.

Tesla sent an order to the car software via wireless service to increase the air suspension of the vehicle, which will raise the care higher off the ground allowing "greater ground clearance at highway speeds."

"Another software update expected in January will give the driver direct control of the air suspension ride height transitions," Musk added in the post.

If the NHTSA suggests a safety fix to avoid fires as a result of its investigation, Tesla "will immediately apply that change to new cars and offer it as a free retrofit to all existing cars," Musk said.

"If a false perception about the safety of electric cars is allowed to linger, it will delay the advent of sustainable transport and increase the risk of global climate change, with potentially disastrous consequences worldwide," Musk said.

Tesla will also add fire damage costs to the warranty policy for its cars "even if due to driver error," Musk said.

[RANKINGS: 2013 Tesla Model S Review]

"Unless a Model S owner actively tries to destroy the car, they are covered," Musk said. "Either our belief in the safety of our car is correct and this is a minor cost or we are wrong, in which case the right thing is for Tesla to bear the cost rather than the car buyer."

Musk repeated his criticism that the Tesla car fires receive too much negative attention from the media given that gasoline car fires happen more often, the Model S was given high safety ratings by the NHTSA and there have been "zero" serious injuries in a Tesla car.

"Since the Model S went into production last year, there have been more than a quarter million gasoline car fires in the United States alone, resulting in over 400 deaths and approximately 1,200 serious injuries," Musk said, extrapolating 2012 data from the National Fire Protection Association.

Recent precedents of electric car safety investigations have not resulted in the cars being recalled. The NHTSA investigated fires in 2011 that occurred with the Chevrolet Volt, and eventually determined the hybrid electric and gas powered car did not pose any unusual risk of fire.

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