Skip to main content

Tesla holds huge promise, despite flaws

By John O'Dell
December 2, 2013 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Tesla Model S
Tesla Model S
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tesla's Model S electric cars have caught fire three times in recent months
  • John O'Dell: We need to know whether there's a flaw that needs to be corrected
  • But it's wrong to use this to question viability of the company or electric cars, he says
  • O'Dell: Electric cars are new and different, but they shouldn't be target for suspicion

Editor's note: John O'Dell is senior green car editor at Edmunds.com, an online resource for car shopping and automotive information. Edmunds.com has purchased a Tesla Model S for long-term review purposes. Follow the website on Twitter: @edmunds

(CNN) -- There were headlines when one of Tesla's Model S electric cars caught fire in late October after the battery case was pierced by a piece of road debris. There were bigger headlines, and much speculation, when within six weeks, a second and then a third Model S fire occurred in the wake of accidents.

The fires are regrettable and must be investigated. No one is suggesting otherwise. We all need to know whether there's a flaw in the Model S that must be corrected.

But to use these incidents to question the viability of Tesla as a company is wrong. This is a company that has achieved the remarkable in launching a new automobile, a new propulsion technology and a new automobile manufacturing enterprise in just a few short years and against very long odds.

John O\'Dell
John O'Dell

Tesla's brilliant but often blustery chairman, Elon Musk, quickly came to the defense of his company's groundbreaking vehicle, going so far as to claim that Tesla asked the government to investigate the cause of the fires -- a claim that National Highway Traffic Safety Agency Administrator David Strickland disputes. NHTSA is investigating, Strickland said, but the agency made that decision on its own, with no request from the automaker.

News about the fires has been overtaken by the announcement of NHTSA's investigation, the squabble between Musk and Strickland and the tumble in the price of Tesla's stock as investors began distancing themselves from a company that until those three fires had been a Wall Street darling.

The whole thing is a shame. This has become much more than a query into a very few vehicle fires. Electric cars have been politicized and many are taking the Tesla fires as a sign that electric vehicles are too new, too different and too dangerous to be allowed on our roads.

Additionally, some in the investment community and a few politicians critical of Tesla and other electric vehicle developers for using government loans have made the fires a referendum on Tesla itself. (Tesla, which received loans from the Department of Energy's new technology program, repaid its loans nine years early.)

On GPS, Musk talks about future of Tesla
On GPS, Musk talks Tesla car safety

Tesla has won the backing of two big players, Toyota and Daimler, which have ownership stakes in the company. Whether it remains independent or eventually is absorbed by another carmaker, it is unlikely to end up on the scrap heap.

It may transpire that Tesla needs to redesign its cars -- or at least the location or shielding of the batteries -- in order to help prevent further fires. But to turn that into an indictment of electric vehicles in general would be wrong as well.

The two Tesla fires in the United States occurred when their battery cases were pierced by metal objects struck when the vehicles were moving at high speeds. The third fire, in Mexico, occurred when a speeding driver lost control and hit a stone wall.

Yet while a Tesla's battery is directly beneath the car's passenger cabin, the flames were channeled to the front, where an engine would be if Teslas had gas engines. This is part of the Model S safety design. The passenger cabins didn't burn. The cars' safety systems warned the drivers to pull over and get out because something was amiss.

The same type of accident involving a conventional gasoline-fueled vehicle might not have resulted in a fire. But think of the damage a hefty metal trailer hitch or length of scrap iron could do after piercing a conventional vehicle's relatively thin floor and entering the passenger cabin. It's not a pretty picture.

The location of the Tesla's battery pack may well have saved one or both drivers from terrible injury in the road debris incidents, even though the cars burned.

Meantime, a typical conventional car with 15 gallons of gas on board carries the explosive power of 210 sticks of dynamite. But most of us drive around all day long blissfully ignoring that deadly potential. Gasoline is the devil we know, and familiarity lets us overlook its flaws.

Electric cars, though, are new and different and challenge the status quo. That makes them a target for suspicion and for criticism. We are not comfortable with things we don't know.

We won't know until NHTSA completes its investigation whether the design of the Model S is inadequate. We should wait until then before contemplating obituaries -- for Tesla or for the electric vehicle.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John O'Dell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 0102 GMT (0902 HKT)
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1135 GMT (1935 HKT)
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1851 GMT (0251 HKT)
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2207 GMT (0607 HKT)
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0336 GMT (1136 HKT)
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 0221 GMT (1021 HKT)
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT