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Is the Tesla Model S the Future of Electric Cars?

Originally published in Scientific American on October 4, 2013

By David Biello

Every hour, there are an average of 17 automobile fires somewhere in the U.S., according to government data. Mechanical failure in internal combustion engines cause the majority, and burning cars filled with gasoline result in more than 200 deaths per year. Yet far more attention is being paid to one all-electric Tesla Model S that caught fire on October 1 after metallic debris pierced a module in its battery pack. The driver of the car walked away. A video of the fire went viral online this week.

A lithium-ion battery fire is different from a gasoline fire, because lithium and water can be explosive in combination. Much as one should not fight a grease fire with water (but rather smother it), one should use alternative means, such as chemical sprays, to put out an electric car fire. Yet the firefighters on scene used water at first to attempt to douse the Model S flames, thereby intensifying them. Extinguishing the fire required cutting into the frame of the vehicle in order to reach the embedded battery pack and dousing the cells with flame-snuffing chemicals, according to the firefighters' report

The Tesla Model S remains a car that garnered the highest safety rating possible from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in testing earlier this year. And electric cars, thanks to government financial support, have doubled the total sales of all hybrid vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius, in their first years of availability—more than 110,000 Chevy Volts, Nissan LEAFs and others have sold since their introduction in January 2011. Tesla Motors hopes to sell some 21,000 Model S EVs this year and the vehicle is already the best-selling electric car. It has captured more than 8 percent of the total luxury market in the first half of 2013, surpassing conventional luxury cars like the Audi A8, BMW 7-series and Mercedes S class. There are already 13,000 Teslas on the road in North America, and only one has ever caught fire in an accident…


Read the rest on Scientific American to learn about the advantages of driving a Tesla car over a regular gasoline car, both financially and environmentally:

Editor's Note: David Biello is the host of the forthcoming sequel to the award-winning Beyond the Light Switch. The series, produced in partnership with Scientific American, will continue to explore how transformation is coming to how we use and produce electricity, impacting the economy, the environment and national security.

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