Seconds after Usmaan Ahmad heard metallic bangs in his Tesla Model S last month and pulled off a suburban Dallas thoroughfare, flames started shooting out of his five-year-old car.
The sound was like “if you were to drop an axle of a normal car” on the ground, Ahmad, 41, said. Only the car was intact, he recalled. Suddenly, as he stood on the side of the road, the car ignited in flames, concentrated around the front passenger-side wheel. “This was shooting out like a flamethrower,” recalled Ahmad, who works in strategy and business development for a health care system.
The combustion of Ahmad’s car is one of a growing number of fire incidents involving older Tesla Model S and X vehicles that experts say are related to the battery, raising questions about the safety and durability of electric vehicles as they age. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is evaluating the fire of Ahmad’s vehicle in Frisco, Texas, and it has contacted Tesla over the matter, NHTSA spokesman Sean Rushton said this month. The agency opened an investigation last year into alleged battery defects that could cause fires in older Tesla sedans and SUVs.
Tesla did not respond to requests for comment sent to multiple representatives.
A lawsuit and defect petition that spurred the NHTSA probe allege Tesla manipulated its battery software in older model cars to reduce the risk of fire, lowering the range and lengthening charging times as it sought to address an undisclosed defect. The attorney filing suit on behalf of Tesla owners last year cited an “alarming number of car fires” that appeared to be spontaneous. Since the agency agreed to look into the issue last year, little more has been disclosed about the status of the probe.
Tesla has argued its cars are 10 times less likely to catch fire than gasoline vehicles, citing data from the National Fire Protection Association and U.S. Federal Highway Administration on the number of incidents by mileage traveled for its fleet of electric cars vs. other vehicles. Tesla said in 2018 that its vehicles had five fires per billion miles traveled, vs. 55 fires per billion miles traveled in the United States.