Feds launch probe of Tesla battery fires

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Federal regulators have opened an initial probe into battery safety issues involving Tesla Inc.’s Model S and Model X cars, raising concerns stemming from a string of apparently spontaneous fires in its vehicles.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) informed Tesla’s legal counsel in an Oct. 24 letter that it was evaluating a petition for an investigation into battery management software for the two car models.

It cited the petition’s claims that the company had sought to patch up battery defects through software updates that scaled back charging capacity and driving range — unbeknownst to drivers. Those claims stem from a class-action lawsuit brought in California that accused Tesla of fraud.

The plaintiffs, represented by Orange County-based lawyer Edward Chen, said that after reports emerged of fires erupting in parked vehicles last spring, the carmaker should have notified NHTSA of a defect and issued a recall.

Instead, they allege, Tesla rolled out “over-the-air” software updates — which drivers download using their in-car screens — causing drivers to lose about 20 to 40 miles of range and decreasing the speed of charging.

The two sides agreed to enter mediation on Oct. 31. Chen, who also leads a second class action against Tesla over separate claims, filed the petition with NHTSA in September.

A spokesperson for Tesla did not answer questions about the claims made in the petition and lawsuit but said the company would respond to the letter and continue to work with NHTSA on safety issues. The spokesperson also cited internal data showing a far lower rate of fires, per vehicle miles traveled, on Tesla cars than in the United States at large.

The probe announced by NHTSA doesn’t rise to the level of a full-scale defect investigation. But if the agency’s Office of Defects Investigation decides to open one, it could encompass some 2,000 vehicles, including models made as far back as 2012.

In its letter, NHTSA asked the company for information on nine main questions, including the effect of software updates on charging capacity and driving range, as well as Tesla’s in-house determinations on the cause of the fires.

The agency listed “high-voltage battery fires that are not related to collision or impact damage to the battery pack” as the alleged defect in question.

It also quoted a part of the petition that urged an investigation into software updates coming “in response to the alarming number of car fires that have occurred worldwide.”

NHTSA gave Tesla until Nov. 28 to respond to the questions in its letter, adding that failure to do so would be punishable with up to $111 million in penalties.

Two recent battery fire incidents, captured on security camera footage, reportedly occurred in parked Teslas this spring in Hong Kong and China. Soon after, the company announced updates that changed battery management settings on the Model S and Model X, in what it described as “an abundance of caution.”

Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group that has pressed Tesla to issue recalls, criticized Tesla’s ability to conduct over-the-air updates without explicit approval from regulators.

“There is a very recent rich history of manufacturers using software updates to address potentially dangerous hardware defects, with varying degrees of success,” he said. “Tesla is at the forefront of this movement.”