The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has opened a formal investigation into the safety of the Tesla Model S electric car following two reports of battery fires, igniting both vehicles. Both cars struck roadway debris that pierced the battery compartment, located just six inches from the ground.

Tesla CEO Defensive

Tesla CEO Elon Musk defiantly contends that “the battery’s placement just one half foot above the ground gives the car a low center of gravity and great handling, while also protecting passengers from debris coming through the floorboards.” Musk said “there’s no reason to bolster the quarter-inch-thick shield that now protects the battery from road debris.” Further in denial, he goes on to say “we believe the evidence is clear that there is no safer car on the road than the Model S.”

NHTSA Begins Investigation

The NHTSA also minimizes the obvious fire danger to passengers. In the posting of its investigation, NHTSA noted that passengers in the Teslas that caught on fire were able to escape unharmed. NHTSA’s report states “in each incident, the vehicle’s battery monitoring system provided escalating visible and audible warnings, allowing the driver to execute a controlled stop and exit the vehicle before the battery emitted smoke and fire.”

Tesla’s Proposed Improvements

Before NHTSA’s announcement, Musk said that he is taking the following steps as a result of the fires:

  • Higher ground clearance of the vehicle to make it less likely to strike road debris that can potentially penetrate the battery pack and ignite a blaze
  • Amending the cars’ warranty to cover damage due to fire

NHTSA’s Plan

The NHTSA said it would “examine the potential risks associated with undercarriage strikes” to determine whether the Model S has a safety problem–and whether any work should be carried out to correct it.” So far no one has suggested better placement of the car’s battery than near the bottom of the vehicle.