A Third Tesla Model S is Consumed by Flames from their Lithium-Ion Batteries

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 9th, 2013

Week in Review

There were two Boeing 787 Dreamliners that had a battery problem and a burning smell.  Fire is dangerous.  Especially in an airplane.  There was no loss of life in either incident.  And there was minor damage.  But two incidents were enough for the FAA to ground the entire Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet.  Yes, fire is dangerous on an airplane.  But the government was also mad at Boeing for wanting to make the Dreamliner with nonunion labor.  Did this play a role in the grounding?  Who knows?

Tesla has now had three lithium-ion fires.  Not battery problems with a burning smell.  The federal government likes Tesla.  Wants everyone to drive an electric car.  And subsidizes the electric car industry.  Interestingly how Tesla can have three fires that destroy the car entirely and yet receive no scrutiny from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.  Guess the government thinks Boeing wants to put people on unsafe airplanes while Tesla doesn’t want to put people in unsafe cars (see Tesla reports third fire involving Model S electric car by Ben Klayman and Bernie Woodall, Reuters, posted 11/8/2013 on The Globe and Mail).

Tesla Motors Inc. reported the third fire in its Model S luxury electric car in six weeks, this time after a highway accident in Tennessee, sending shares down sharply on Thursday.

The Tennessee Highway Patrol said the 2013 model sedan ran over a tow hitch that hit the undercarriage of the vehicle, causing an electrical fire on Interstate 24 on Wednesday. A highway patrol dispatcher called the damage to the car “extensive.”

The Model S undercarriage has armour plating that protects a battery pack of lithium-ion cells. Tesla said it did not yet know whether the fire involved the car’s battery.

An electrical fire in an electric car probably involved the car’s battery.  For without gasoline and a source for ignition what else can burn in an electric car other than a high energy density device under heat and pressure?

The first Model S fire occurred on Oct. 1 near Seattle, when the car collided with a large piece of metal debris in the road that punched a hole through the protective armour plating…

The second fire took place later in the month in Merida, Mexico, when, according to reports, a car drove through a roundabout, crashed through a concrete wall and hit a tree…

While none of the drivers in any of the Tesla accidents were injured, the glaring headlines about fires were unwelcome for a company whose stock soared sixfold in the first nine months of the year. Since the first fire, Tesla’s shares have lost more than 27 per cent, and this week’s declines are the worst one-week drop since May, 2012.

“For a company with a stock price based as much or more on image than financials, those recurring headlines are highly damaging,” Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer said.

When image is more important than financials that means the electric car isn’t selling.  That the costs far exceed revenue.  And probably the only things allowing them to stay in business are government subsidies (both for Tesla and for Tesla buyers) and irrational exuberance.  Like when investors created a dot-com bubble in the late Nineties.  Bidding up stock prices into the stratosphere when companies had nothing to sell let alone profits.  At least in the dot-com bubble investors were betting that they found the next Microsoft and were going to get rich.  It’s a little more puzzling why investors are buying Tesla stock in the first place. 

Tesla may build the best electric cars in the world.  But they are still electric cars.  The problem is no one is buying electric cars.  Except rich people who can afford a third car.  With the other two being powered by gasoline.  In case they want to travel a long distance.  Or drive at night or in the cold with the lights and heat on.  Or have to rush a sick child to the hospital when the Tesla is on the charger.

Tesla’s battery pack is made up of small lithium-ion battery cells that are also used in laptop computers, an approach not used by other auto makers. The battery pack stretches across the base of the vehicle. In comparison, General Motors Co. uses large-format battery cells in a T-shape in the centre of the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid car.

Other auto makers have dealt with battery fires in electrified vehicles, including GM’s Volt and Mitsubishi Motors Corp.’s i-MiEV…

“For consumers concerned about fire risk, there should be absolutely zero doubt that it is safer to power a car with a battery” than a conventional gas-powered vehicle, he said on a blog post.

Company executives called that first fire a “highly uncommon occurrence,” likely caused by a curved metal object falling off a semi-trailer and striking up into the underside of the car in a “pole-vault effect.”

Gasoline engines are dangerous, but Americans have learned to live with them over the years, said Tom Gage, the former CEO of AC Propulsion, which developed the drive train for Tesla’s first model, the Roadster.

“Obviously, gasoline can be lit more easily and can burn with more ferocity than a battery can, but a gas tank in a car now benefits from 120 years of fairly intensive development and government regulation regarding how you make it safe,” he said.

Ever smell gasoline?  In a parking lot?  When you shouldn’t?  It might have been more common in the old days.  When the Big Three were selling their rust buckets.  Which rusted out in the northern climates where they salt the roads during winter.  Salt makes metal rust.  Including gas tanks.  Causing leaks.  If you smelled gas, though, did you run away from that car and wait for it to explode?  No.  You didn’t.  You probably thought something along the lines of, “That guy should get that fixed.  Gasoline is too expensive to waste like that.”

And you can fix a leaky gas tank.  It’s dangerous but you can.  For a tank full of gas has more liquid than fumes in it.  But an empty gas tank may be full of lingering gas fumes.  That can explode if ignited with a welding torch.  Which is why before they weld a gas tank they fill it full of sand.  So there is no room for any explosive gas vapors.

Gasoline is flammable.  It will burn.  But it won’t explode.  For gasoline in a liquid form is not as dangerous as in other forms.  It can leak out of a gas tank.  And then evaporate into the atmosphere.  In a car wreck something can puncture the gas tank and cause fuel to spill out.  If this fuel is ignited it can burn.  And the fire will follow the gasoline back to the source.  If the fire reaches the gasoline fumes under pressure in the gas tank there can be an explosion.  A very big one at that.  But if the fire department is on the scene they can wash that gasoline away with a fire hose.  And prevent any fire or explosion.  When a lithium-ion battery burns, though, throwing water on it won’t do much.

For gasoline to power a gasoline-powered car we first have to vaporize it.  Mix it with oxygen (pulled from the air).  Compress the air-fuel mixture.  And then ignite it with a spark.  That’s when it’s dangerous.  When it’s inside our engines.  Not in the gas tank.  For a piece of metal can puncture the bottom of a car—including the gas tank—without causing a fire.  Whereas it’s a little iffy with a Tesla.  If something punctures the batteries covering the bottom of the car there’s a good chance there may be a fire.  While if you puncture a gas tank you may just run out of gas.

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Another Electric Car bursts into Flames

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 5th, 2013

Week in Review

One thing we learned from Breaking Bad was to respect the chemistry.  And that’s what batteries are.  Chemistry.  The kind of chemistry that’s a little on the dangerous side.  Unlike gasoline.  Which we can store relatively safely in tanks under our cars.  Where little chemistry goes on inside our gas tanks.  To use that gasoline to power our cars we have to do a couple of things.  We have to aerosolize it.  Combine it with oxygen.  Compress it.  Then ignite it.  Then and only then does it release its incredible energy.  Producing great heat in the engine.  But not the gas tank.  Which needs no cooling system.  It’s a little different in an electric car.

In a battery the chemistry is all local.  It produces electricity—and heat—where the chemicals are stored.  In the battery.  One of the problems with electric cars is their limited range.  And you fix this problem with bigger and more powerful batteries.  That can produce a lot of electricity—and heat—as they charge or power the car.  Making battery cooling a requirement for safe battery use.  To keep those chemicals under control.  But sometimes these chemical reactions go out of control.  Causing fires as cars re-charge in their garages.  Causing fires that grounded the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.  And this (see Hot Wheels! Tape of Tesla Fire Has Stock Tanking by Dan Berman, Hot Stock Minute, posted 10/3/2013 on Yahoo! Finance).

Tape of a Tesla (TSLA) on fire is giving new meaning to the term “hot wheels.” The video was shot on Tuesday after a Model S sedan went up in flames…

In an e-mail sent to The New York Times, Tesla spokeswoman Elizabeth Jarvis-Shean wrote that the fire was caused by the “direct impact of a large metallic object to one of the 16 modules within the Model S battery pack.” The e-mail went on to say, “Because each module within the battery pack is, by design, isolated by fire barriers to limit any potential damage, the fire in the battery pack was contained to a small section in the front of the vehicle.”

Contained to a small section?  It looks like the fire engulfed the whole car.  All because of some metal debris thrown up from the roadway.  Of course, a way to protect against something like this in the future is to add a metal shield that can take a direct hit without damage.  Adding a thick piece of metal under the car, though, adds weight.  Which, of course, reduces range.

This is a problem with electric cars.  Improving safety results in a reduction in range.  Because it adds weight.  It adds weight, too, with gasoline-powered cars.  But one full tank of gas can hold a lot more energy that all the batteries can on an electric car.  And when you run out of gas all you have to do is stop at a conveniently located gas station and fill up.  Which takes about 10 minutes or so.  Unlike a recharge of an electric car.  Which can take anywhere between a half hour (with a high-voltage fast charger) to overnight in the garage plugged into a standard outlet.  Which is why electric cars are more of a novelty.  Those who have them typically have other more reliable cars for their main driving needs.  For though gasoline-powered cars catch fire, too, when they’re not on fire you know you’re going to get home.

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Tesla’s Battery Swap System gives the Gasoline-Powered car a Run for its Money

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 23rd, 2013

Week in Review

The BIG problem with the all-electric car is range anxiety.  Will I have enough charge to get home?  If I don’t how long will it take to recharge my battery?  So I can get home?  You see, if you’re running low on gas you can always pull into a gas station and fill your tank in about 5 minutes.  Maybe 10-20 minutes if there are cars at all of the gas pumps and you have to wait for them to fuel first.  Then you’re back on the road with your car mechanically exactly like it was before you stopped.  The ONLY thing changed is the amount of fuel in the gas tank.  If the all-electric car can match that then people will get over their range anxiety.  And start buying them.  With a new battery swap system, Tesla believes they have done exactly that (see Tesla Shows Off A 90-Second Battery Swap System, Wants It At Supercharging Stations By Year’s End by Chris Velazco posted 6/20/2013 on TechCrunch).

Tesla can swap a Model S’s battery in just 90 seconds (that’s less time than it takes to fuel up a regular car), and you won’t even have to get out of your seat to do it…

Once a Model S owner parks the car on a designated spot, a platform raises from the ground to disconnect and grab hold of the depleted battery. The platform then descends back into the ground, dumps the battery, retrieves a fresh one, and rises once more to connect it to the car…

Frenzied drivers will still have to do some work, though — they’ll have to drop off the battery on the return leg of their journey and pay an unspecified “transport fee,” though they can also choose to keep the battery and pony up the difference between the price of the old and new batteries…

Outfitting each of those stations with the ability to quickly replace batteries and get motorists back on the road presents quite a logistics problem. There’s the cost to consider — Tesla expects each battery swap station to cost about $500,000 to build, to say nothing of the maintenance and infrastructure costs that will come now that someone presumably has to stop by each station and replace worn-down batteries.

When you get gas you’re not removing nuts and bolts.  There are no studs that can break.  No threads to strip.  Yes a battery swap is quick and hands-free but there is a chance for something to go wrong when you’re replacing a part of your car.  Especially a part that hangs underneath.  The odds may be slim that something will happen.  But when you’re gassing up this cannot happen.  Because you don’t need any tools or machines to put gasoline into the gas tank.

What if it’s winter?  And the bottom of your car is ensconced in ice?  Will there be an attendant there to chisel the ice away so the automated system can work?  And if driving on snow and ice there’s always a chance that you may spin out of control and bounce the bottom of your car off of a curb or something.  Will that cause anything to become misaligned so the automated system won’t work?  And if you cracked your battery pack will the automated system notice that while removing it?  Or will they unknowingly recharge a cracked one and give it to some unlucky driver?  Or are all battery packs new at these recharging stations?  If so that could make this battery swap more costly than buying gasoline.

Will every all-electric car have the same battery pack?  Will they all have the same charging capacity?  Or will each car that has a different battery need its own automated system?  That’s something else you don’t have to worry about with gasoline.  For you will be able to burn gasoline from any gas station in any of your cars.  Which means all you have to look for when you need fuel is a gas station.  For anyone will do.

Pit stops in NASCAR work well.  They’re fast.  And everyone is doing the best job they can with the best spare parts available.  But they don’t share with the other pit crews.  With these battery swap stations you have to place a lot of trust in your fellow Tesla drivers.  That none of them are trying to unload a damaged battery without anyone being the wiser.  I’m sure they’re all trustworthy.  But do you want to take a chance when driving at 3 in the morning?

The Tesla battery swap station is impressive.  But stopping for gasoline is so much easier and simpler to do.  And you never have to worry about what some other driver left you.  This is another huge investment in addition to the charging network they’re installing.  What happens, say, if after making this massive investment a new battery technology comes out that makes the previous ones obsolete?  As well as these battery swap stations?  What then?

Guess I’m still skeptical.  Even when it comes to what may be the finest all-electric car ever built.  For Tesla has made a beautiful car.  And brought it as closer to the gasoline-powered car in terms of range and convenience.  But it’s not a gasoline-powered car.  What we’re familiar with.  Which gives us a sense of security when driving.  Even driving home in the middle of the night through a blinding blizzard.  Confidant that our car will always be up to the task of getting us home.  Even when we may not.

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One of the Finest All-Electric Cars is Beaten by the Cold Temperatures of the East Coast

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 16th, 2013

Week in Review

The all-electric car is great as long as it’s warm and you don’t plan on driving great distances (see Tesla stock dips on poor Model S review by Maureen Farrell posted 2/11/2013 on CNN Money).

The idea of a driving an electric car has always intrigued me, but after reading a New York Times review of the Tesla (TSLA) Model S on I-95, it sounds like a total nightmare.

According to the writer, the battery on the Model S drained much quicker than promised in cold weather during a recent trip up and down the East Coast. With only a few charging stations in the Northeast, the writer was forced to turn off the heat in 30 degree weather to conserve power. And that didn’t help him much. At one point he needed to get towed for 45 minutes to the next charging station.

Here are some excerpts from the New York Times article.

The 480-volt Supercharger stations deliver enough power for 150 miles of travel in 30 minutes, and a full charge in about an hour, for the 85 kilowatt-hour Model S. (Adding the fast-charge option to cars with the midlevel 60 kilowatt-hour battery costs $2,000.) That’s quite a bit longer than it takes to pump 15 gallons of gasoline, but at Supercharger stations Tesla pays for the electricity, which seems a reasonable trade for fast, silent and emissions-free driving. Besides, what’s Sbarro for..?

I began following Tesla’s range-maximization guidelines, which meant dispensing with such battery-draining amenities as warming the cabin and keeping up with traffic. I turned the climate control to low — the temperature was still in the 30s — and planted myself in the far right lane with the cruise control set at 54 miles per hour (the speed limit is 65)…

At that point, the car informed me it was shutting off the heater, and it ordered me, in vivid red letters, to “Recharge Now…”

I spent nearly an hour at the Milford service plaza as the Tesla sucked electrons from the hitching post…

When I parked the car, its computer said I had 90 miles of range, twice the 46 miles back to Milford. It was a different story at 8:30 the next morning. The thermometer read 10 degrees and the display showed 25 miles of remaining range — the electrical equivalent of someone having siphoned off more than two-thirds of the fuel that was in the tank when I parked.

I called Tesla in California, and the official I woke up said I needed to “condition” the battery pack to restore the lost energy. That meant sitting in the car for half an hour with the heat on a low setting…

The Tesla people found an E.V. charging facility that Norwich Public Utilities had recently installed. Norwich, an old mill town on the Thames River, was only 11 miles away, though in the opposite direction from Milford.

After making arrangements to recharge at the Norwich station, I located the proper adapter in the trunk, plugged in and walked to the only warm place nearby, Butch’s Luncheonette and Breakfast Club, an establishment (smoking allowed) where only members can buy a cup of coffee or a plate of eggs. But the owners let me wait there while the Model S drank its juice. Tesla’s experts said that pumping in a little energy would help restore the power lost overnight as a result of the cold weather, and after an hour they cleared me to resume the trip to Milford.

Looking back, I should have bought a membership to Butch’s and spent a few hours there while the car charged. The displayed range never reached the number of miles remaining to Milford, and as I limped along at about 45 miles per hour I saw increasingly dire dashboard warnings to recharge immediately. Mr. Merendino, the product planner, found an E.V. charging station about five miles away.

But the Model S had other ideas. “Car is shutting down,” the computer informed me. I was able to coast down an exit ramp in Branford, Conn., before the car made good on its threat.   Tesla’s New York service manager, Adam Williams, found a towing service in Milford that sent a skilled and very patient driver, Rick Ibsen, to rescue me with a flatbed truck. Not so quick: the car’s electrically actuated parking brake would not release without battery power, and hooking the car’s 12-volt charging post behind the front grille to the tow truck’s portable charger would not release the brake. So he had to drag it onto the flatbed, a painstaking process that took 45 minutes. Fortunately, the cab of the tow truck was toasty.

At 2:40 p.m., we pulled into the Milford rest stop, five hours after I had left Groton on a trip that should have taken less than an hour. Mr. Ibsen carefully maneuvered the flatbed close to the charging kiosk, and 25 minutes later, with the battery sufficiently charged to release the parking brake and drive off the truck, the car was back on the ground.

And this is perhaps the finest all-electric car in the market.  And it is a modern marvel.  But even as high-tech as it is it still can’t change the law of physics.  Batteries don’t work well in cold temperatures.  It takes time to charge a battery.  Even at 480 volts.  And it should also be noted that charging lithium-ion batteries is itself not the safest thing to do.  For if they over charge they can catch fire.  These are the same batteries they have on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.  That the FAA grounded because their lithium-ion batteries were catching on fire.

Had he been driving at night he probably would have gotten a message that the car was shutting off its headlights, too.  To conserve battery charge.  Which would probably be a little more hazardous than driving without heat in the dark.

If you drive where it is cold the last thing you want is for your car to shut down.  Unable to get you home.  And this is the warmth and security a gasoline engine gives you.  You can top off your tank the night before to be extra safe you won’t run out of fuel.  And if the temperature falls to 40 below zero over night you will have the same amount of gasoline in your tank in the morning.  If you get stuck in bumper to bumper traffic in 40 degree below zero weather you will be able to stay toasty warm.  And if you’re driving after dark you will even be able to see where you are going.  Thanks to gasoline.  And the internal combustion engine.

Or you can try to save the environment and die of exposure instead.  Your choice.  Gasoline.  Or electricity.  Range anxiety or carefree driving.  Shivering in the cold to squeeze out a few extra miles.  Or sitting comfortably in your car with your coat off.  Killing an hour every time you charge your car perhaps once or twice a day.  Or spending 10 minutes pumping gas maybe once a week.  Pain in the ass.  Or convenience.  Your choice.

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