Tesla Model S Crashes, Battery Cells Ignite in Pyrotechnic Display

Michael GrossmanNovember 09, 2016 6 minutes

Does anybody else like retro-futurism? You may have seen examples of it without knowing its name, but the label applies to what people of previous periods in history thought the future would look like. For instance, concept art generated in the fifties depicts smiling people in silvery jumpsuits strolling across a gleaming Martian city toward their hovercars, munching on food capsules or palling around with robots.

Retro Future image
Others focused on developments in getting to and from the daily grind.

Science and technology often aspire to realize the goals set forth by the prophets and optimists of yesteryear, but progress often makes gains of only inches at a time. These days, the biggest and closest goals seem to be in the realm of power consumption. As we glimpse the event horizon of man-made climate change, clean energy is a hot topic all over the world. One name that comes up again and again in this regard is Tesla, the upstart electric-auto manufacturer with big dreams and even bigger government subsidies.

The journey forward is not without pitfalls, though. Tesla has hit some pretty big setbacks in its march toward the future of automobiles. It has been featured in the news a few times in 2016 not for its technological advancements or its vision, but for failures of its integrated systems. Several of these reports involve its autopilot feature, which has allegedly been involved in some fatal crashes. However, the topic I want to visit today involves Tesla's power source, the ubiquitous lithium-ion battery--technology that has itself been negatively profiled a number of times lately because of its occasional tendency to combust and/or explode.

Tesla's Lithium-Ion Power Plant: The Basics

Before we start, know that when I say "basics," I'm pretty serious. I'm not an engineer or an electrician. I'll try to give you more than "the battery is magic!", but that's about all I can promise.

The Tesla Model S is a fully-electric vehicle. Unlike "hybrid"-style automobiles with fuel tanks as well as electric batteries, Tesla vehicles are designed with combustion-free methods of locomotion. Electric current obtained from the power grid charges the vehicle's battery, which in turn provides the juice to power its electric motor. Please note that when I say "battery," I actually mean numerous smaller batteries combined into a massive, thousand-pound power plant that runs the car for a few hundred miles per charge. The overall battery assembly looks like this (I jazzed up the background a bit).

The motor converts electrical energy from the battery into mechanical power that propels the vehicle. There's no gas, no combustion, and a great deal less plumbing under the hood. The vehicle is arguably more responsive than a standard gasoline-powered vehicle, generates instant torque, and is considerably quieter to drive. Even accounting for the carbon imprint of creating the electricity that is used to charge the vehicle, its overall pollution is significantly less than even the closest competing hybrid vehicles.

If this is starting to sound like a Tesla commercial, let me remind you that I started by saying the company has been in some hot water lately, and today's example of that ties in with a current national concern over the volatility of lithium-ion batteries.

Elon Musk's Newest Nightmare: Tesla Battery Explodes into Fireworks

Early in the morning on Thursday, November 3, a 25-year-old motorist crashed her Tesla Model S into a tree in Indianapolis, Indiana. Official reports note she was driving at "a high rate of speed," suggesting the crash itself was not a failure of the electric vehicle's on-board systems, unlike some other recent crashes where Tesla's "autopilot" feature may have been involved.

Once the vehicle crashed, the danger scale increased considerably as the Model S combusted and its electric battery exploded violently, creating several smaller fires in the vicinity. Firefighters arriving on the scene had a difficult time extinguishing the flames; as noted, the electric car's power source is comprised of a large quantity of smaller lithium-ion cells, each of which has the capacity to overheat and ignite its neighbors. Moreover, the battery's composite lithium can be very hard to put out. Responders had to apply a great deal of both flame-retardant powder and water to control the remnants of the car's fiery power source.

News reports include footage taken at the scene which shows the battery's cells exploding outward like fireworks as they ignite, adding further elements of danger to an already-hazardous situation:

The driver was reported dead at the scene; her 44-year-old passenger was taken by emergency responders to a nearby hospital, where he later passed away from his injuries. Our genuine sympathies to the families and loved ones of both parties.

Lithium-Ion Batteries Can Cause Serious Damage (But It's Not Guaranteed)

While at this time lithium-ion power is more or less the "king of the hill" when it comes to rechargeable technology, it is not without its dangers. I wrote recently about an electric Chevy Bolt that melted down in an owner's garage while charging. The melting battery and car released harmful quantities of carbon monoxide into the woman's home, the toxicity of which poisoned her husband to the point of hospitalization.

Gas release is only one of the potential hazards of this battery type, though. A recent rash of reports suggest the battery was the source of fires in a volatile brand of smartphone, a trendy-if-absurd mode of transportation, a cigarette substitute, and other devices that require recharging. These devices also utilize much smaller-scale battery assemblies than a passenger vehicle; in the case of the Samsung phones, it was only a single lithium-ion cell that caused trouble so serious that its use was banned during air travel.

These events are not limited to consumer goods, either. In June, NASA's experimental RoboSimian robot spontaneously burst into flames while charging in the lab. RoboSimian's power pack was comprised of 96 lithium-ion cells operating in concert. After examining the robot's remains, analysts believe a single cell may have malfunctioned and ignited, the force of which then caught its surrounding cells on fire, and that spun into further ignition as all the cells rapidly exploded (lithium is highly combustible when exposed to air). It's an alarming example of how quickly even a supposedly-safeguarded system like a battery enclosure can spiral out of control.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, the benefits of lithium-ion batteries generally outweigh the possible risks. They represent the best achievement so far in the realm of rechargeable power, and statistically speaking they're fairly safe. For every report of a fire or explosion that makes the rounds of panicky media reports, literal millions of units work without a hiccup for the two-year lifespan of a lithium-ion battery. Their failure rate is something like one in a million cases, but as more devices make use of them, those odds do become more daunting.

Tesla Is Making Some of the Safest Cars on the Road Right Now.

I should clarify that I don't want to put Tesla on the chopping block. The Model S is one heck of a vehicle, and despite some setbacks that drew international attention, it is carefully assembled from the ground up. The company has famously boasted that the Model S exceeded the 5-Star safety rating generally applied by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) to vehicles that satisfactorily pass all required safety and crash tests. The car is about as safe as it can conceivably be for a prudent, sober driver that obeys the speed limit--and it does it all while respecting the environment, so bonus points there too.

My concern is only with the technology that moves this Safetymobile™ to and fro, and even that's not bad. It's just that when it goes wrong, it goes very seriously wrong--ask anyone who's had an e-cigarette blow up in a pocket, or a smartphone that burned through a tabletop, or the firefighters who recently had to put out a rocket-projecting car battery in Indiana. For the moment, there isn't a superior technology for these battery assemblies, so Tesla shouldn't be accused of trying to cut corners. The scientific community has begun to investigate the possibility of creating denser, more effective magnesium-ion batteries, but that technology is supposedly decades from realization, circulating mostly through the "promising possibility" phase of discovery right now.

Tesla also takes a number of measures to decrease the likelihood of these fires; each battery cell is contained in steel-and-ceramic housing and a liquid cooling system to combat overheating. These measures tend to work until or unless the battery is compromised as it was during the crash, and it's worth noting that gas-powered cars often burn after collisions as well--up to five times as often as electrics.

Let's Make the Car Safer Before We Fly In It.

So electric power isn't the clean and efficient pocket-sized nuclear reactor envisioned by the starry-eyed futurists of decades past, but it's also not the fiery doom of society, either. As I would with virtually any news story in a time when violence and fear bring in more viewers than even-handed and thoughtful analysis, I encourage everyone to keep this in perspective. A car crashed and caught fire, and people died. It's a terrible thing, and I wouldn't suggest otherwise. But the car didn't cause the crash, and the fire wasn't the cause of death. It could have been, though, and lithium-ion technology certainly needs further refinement. Before we start planning for the distant future, let's work on improving the technology of today.