Stolen Tesla’s Fatality-Free L.A. Crash Surprises Experts

Jul 10, 2014 2:45 pm ET

(Adds Pennsylvania bill signing in seventh paragraph.)

July 10 (Bloomberg) -- A high-speed crash and fire that left alive the driver of a stolen Tesla Model S last week was so intense that it could have killed the person, according to safety experts who reviewed images of the calamity.

That the driver lived may be a testament to the safety features built into the car, one of them said. The car, stolen from Tesla Motors Inc.’s service center in west Los Angeles early July 4, outran police before crashing at high speed into vehicles on La Brea Avenue in West Hollywood. The Model S then struck a steel pole and split in two, igniting a fire in the luxury sedan, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff and Fire Department reports. The unidentified Tesla driver was thrown from the car and injured, as were seven other people the vehicle collided with on La Brea, Fire Capt. Rick Flores said.

“I was surprised anyone survived this thing,” said Casey Grant, who studies automotive fires for the National Fire Protection Association, a Quincy, Massachusetts-based non-profit that helps firefighters and emergency crews improve safety techniques, in a phone interview. “That alone was striking because it looked like a non-survivable crash.”

The holiday-weekend incident brought back questions about the safety of electric-car technology. Crash-related fires involving two Model S sedans last year triggered a safety review by U.S. regulators, who required no changes to the $71,000 vehicle beyond the titanium shield Tesla added to strengthen the car’s battery pack. Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk has said that despite fires, the crashworthiness of the Model S and absence of fatalities in last year’s accidents underscore the car’s safety.

Lower Odds

“The odds of fire in a Model S, at roughly 1 in 8,000 vehicles, are five times lower than those of an average gasoline car and, when a fire does occur, the actual combustion potential is comparatively small,” Musk said in a March 28 statement.

Tesla slipped 1.3 percent to $220.10 at 2:38 p.m. New York time. The company, whose shares rose 48 percent this year through yesterday, sells its cars directly to consumers bypassing traditional dealerships.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican, yesterday signed legislation that lets Tesla operate as many as five company-owned stores in the state. New Jersey and New York have approved similar bills this year amid criticism from dealer groups. While the fight with dealers and last year’s crashes and battery fires have drawn negative attention to the company, the latest incident so far shows its signature vehicle in a positive light.

Steel Pole

Accidents in which cars hit steel poles don’t have to be fast to cause serious damage, said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Arlington, Virginia- based group conducts crash and safety tests that include slamming cars into fixed metal poles at about 18 miles (29 kilometers) per hour, he said. It hasn’t yet tested the Model S.

“This has to have been at a pretty high rate of speed, certainly faster than the lab testing we do,” Lund said.

Like Grant, he has seen only video images of the Los Angeles crash.

“It’s not going to take a high rate of speed to cut through a vehicle,” said Lund. “The Tesla I would expect to be a bit stiffer than some other vehicles, as they want to protect the battery pack, but if the car is going very fast, that probably won’t make much difference.”

‘Eager’ Tesla

While the Palo Alto, California-based company is “eager” to examine the vehicle in the July 4 crash it hasn’t been given opportunity to do so yet, said Simon Sproule, a Tesla spokesman. He declined to discuss details of the theft and crash in advance of findings from police and sheriff’s department.

The investigation is at an early stage and details including the Tesla’s speed the time of the crash and how the fire started haven’t been determined, said Sgt. Daniel Dail, with the sheriff’s department’s Traffic Services unit.

Ruben Hakobyan, 27, and four passengers in his 2012 Honda Civic were among those injured in the crash. His vehicle was stopped at a traffic light on La Brea when the front half of the Tesla smashed the car’s roof, knocking him unconscious, Hakobyan said in a phone interview.

Crash Victim

“I didn’t hear anything before it happened -- no sirens, no nothing,” Hakobyan said, who didn’t regain consciousness until after firemen pulled him from his car. He saw that the pole hit by the Tesla had fallen, the back half of the Model S was wedged in a building and the front portion that had hit his vehicle was burning.

“It was going like fireworks,” said Hakobyan, who was treated at Cedars-Sinai hospital in Beverly Hills after the accident. Neither he nor and his attorney Dominic Afzali knew the condition of Hakobyan’s passengers.

Coincidentally, three people were killed in a separate collision late July 4 in Palmdale, north of Los Angeles, when their Toyota Corolla was rear-ended by the driver of a Model S, according to Flores. The Tesla driver had only minor injuries, the Los Angeles Times said, citing the California Highway Patrol.

There were 172,500 vehicle fires in the U.S. in 2012, resulting in 300 deaths, according to National Fire Protection Association data. None of the fatalities involved electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles, said Grant.

Gasoline Fires

In last year’s Tesla fires, Model S drivers traveling at highway speeds hit metal debris that punctured the battery pack. Those drivers got alerts from the vehicle to pull over and exit before fires started.

Gasoline fires can happen much faster, said Dan Doughty, a former Sandia National Laboratory scientist who now runs Battery Safety Consulting Inc. in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Battery fires have a longer “induction period,” Doughty said in a phone interview. “Gasoline is always ready to go. Introduce a spark and oxygen and it will go up.”

With electric vehicles, “the delay can be because the battery experiences a short circuit and responds by dumping a lot of high current very quickly,” he said. “That high current causes resistive heating in the cells and eventually leads to ‘thermal runaway,’ but it can take a little while.”

‘Too Early’

Tesla’s Model S safety claims don’t appear to be wrong, based on accident data so far, Grant said. “But it’s also too early and there’s too little information” to make a conclusive statement, he said.

“We’ve been watching quite closely and electric vehicles in fact have had a very good track record,” Grant said. “There’s nothing that suggests a greater risk than for gasoline vehicles.”

Batteries can be slower to ignite than gasoline, though not always and can burn for a much longer time, Grant said. “They can also reignite.”

While the Model S may have a somewhat stronger frame than many vehicles, that’s probably not what kept the driver alive in the Los Angeles crash, Lund said.

“Basically, the reason the driver survived is he was lucky that car split behind the driver’s seat and not through the front row,” Lund said.

--With assistance from Romy Varghese in Philadelphia and Rob Golum in Los Angeles.