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Having written a few chapters on marketing a new car, using Fisker as an example, and interviewing Tesla in the process, I have to say I am impressed by how well Tesla nails marketing.

Here is the direct email letter related to the fire. Contrast to the Fisker "lawyer-ran marketing" which took a totally different approach. While I like my Fisker Karma better, I have to say right culture and marketing can go a long way. Hats off to Tesla. Well done.


October 4, 2013
About the Model S fire
By Elon Musk, Chairman, Product Architect & CEO
Earlier this week, a Model S traveling at highway speed struck a large metal object, causing significant damage to the vehicle. A curved section that fell off a semi-trailer was recovered from the roadway near where the accident occurred and, according to the road crew that was on the scene, appears to be the culprit. The geometry of the object caused a powerful lever action as it went under the car, punching upward and impaling the Model S with a peak force on the order of 25 tons. Only a force of this magnitude would be strong enough to punch a 3 inch diameter hole through the quarter inch armor plate protecting the base of the vehicle.

The Model S owner was nonetheless able to exit the highway as instructed by the onboard alert system, bring the car to a stop and depart the vehicle without injury. A fire caused by the impact began in the front battery module – the battery pack has a total of 16 modules – but was contained to the front section of the car by internal firewalls within the pack. Vents built into the battery pack directed the flames down towards the road and away from the vehicle.

When the fire department arrived, they observed standard procedure, which was to gain access to the source of the fire by puncturing holes in the top of the battery's protective metal plate and applying water. For the Model S lithium-ion battery, it was correct to apply water (vs. dry chemical extinguisher), but not to puncture the metal firewall, as the newly created holes allowed the flames to then vent upwards into the front trunk section of the Model S. Nonetheless, a combination of water followed by dry chemical extinguisher quickly brought the fire to an end.

It is important to note that the fire in the battery was contained to a small section near the front by the internal firewalls built into the pack structure. At no point did fire enter the passenger compartment.

Had a conventional gasoline car encountered the same object on the highway, the result could have been far worse. A typical gasoline car only has a thin metal sheet protecting the underbody, leaving it vulnerable to destruction of the fuel supply lines or fuel tank, which causes a pool of gasoline to form and often burn the entire car to the ground. In contrast, the combustion energy of our battery pack is only about 10% of the energy contained in a gasoline tank and is divided into 16 modules with firewalls in between. As a consequence, the effective combustion potential is only about 1% that of the fuel in a comparable gasoline sedan.

The nationwide driving statistics make this very clear: there are 150,000 car fires per year according to the National Fire Protection Association, and Americans drive about 3 trillion miles per year according to the Department of Transportation. That equates to 1 vehicle fire for every 20 million miles driven, compared to 1 fire in over 100 million miles for Tesla. This means you are 5 times more likely to experience a fire in a conventional gasoline car than a Tesla!

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 large tank of highly flammable liquid.

— Elon
Below is our email correspondence with the Model S owner that experienced the fire, reprinted with his permission:

From: robert Carlson
Sent: Thursday, October 03, 2013 12:53 PM
To: Jerome Guillen
Subject: carlson 0389

Mr. Guillen,

Thanks for the support. I completely agree with the assessment to date. I guess you can test for everything, but some other celestial bullet comes along and challenges your design. I agree that the car performed very well under such an extreme test. The batteries went through a controlled burn which the internet images really exaggerates. Anyway, I am still a big fan of your car and look forward to getting back into one. Justin offered a white loaner--thanks. I am also an investor and have to say that the response I am observing is really supportive of the future for electric vehicles. I was thinking this was bound to happen, just not to me. But now it is out there and probably gets a sigh of relief as a test and risk issue-this "doomsday" event has now been tested, and the design and engineering works.

rob carlson
On Oct 3, 2013, at 12:29 PM, Jerome Guillen wrote:

Dear Mr. Carlson:

I am the VP of sales and service for Tesla, reporting directly to Elon Musk, Tesla's CEO.

I am sorry to hear that you experienced a collision in your Model S 2 days ago. We are happy that the Model S performed in such a way that you were not injured in the accident and that nobody else was hurt.

I believe you have been in contact with Justin Samson, our service manager, since the accident. We are following this case extremely closely and we have sent a team of experts to review your vehicle. All indications are that your Model S drove over large, oddly-shaped metal object which impacted the leading edge of the vehicle's undercarriage and rotated into the underside of the vehicle ("pole vault" effect). This is a highly uncommon occurrence.

Based on our review thus far, we believe that the Model S performed as designed by limiting the resulting fire to the affected zones only. Given the significant intensity of the impact, which managed to pierce the 1/4 inch bottom plate (something that is extremely hard to do), the Model S energy containment functions operated correctly. In particular, the top cover of the battery provided a strong barrier and there was no apparent propagation of the fire into the cabin. This ensured cabin integrity and occupant safety, which remains our most important goal.

We very much appreciate your support, patience and understanding while we proceed with the investigation. Justin keeps me closely informed. Please feel free to contact me directly, if you have any question or concern.

Best regards,
Jerome Guillen I VP, WW sales and service
 

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Musk's email is fine but the Guillen email is getting way ahead of the evidence, as they say on CSI. He says that they are sending experts to look at the car but he already has a detailed explanation that completely exonerates the car's design and construction without any scientific basis. That sounds more like PR than objective investigation to me and reads as very defensive.

They should have just said, we are thankful you are not hurt and will investigate this to figure out what happened, rather than write the closing argument for the lawsuit. And then actually investigate it and release their findings rather than use "apparently" to engage in propaganda - rookie mistake.
 

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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
I agree, his email could have been a little better. Do you have the Fisker letter from the first fire? I recall it, but don't have it handy, and seems that Tesla handled it better. I would be interested to see the letters side-by-side.
 

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I agree, his email could have been a little better. Do you have the Fisker letter from the first fire? I recall it, but don't have it handy, and seems that Tesla handled it better. I would be interested to see the letters side-by-side.
Here is Fisker's press release after the first fire. It is very factual and not at all self-congratulatory. To be fair, Fisker had a much tougher nut to crack because no one was sure what the actual cause of the fire was at the time. Tesla, in contrast, has a pretty good idea about what happened and how the fire may have started.

Media Statement: Fisker Karma Engineering

Anaheim, CA – May 11, 2012

Fisker Automotive has noted unfounded allegations, reported in the media, about the engine compartment layout of its Karma model.

The manufacturer of the world's first extended range luxury electric vehicle has received full technical and safety certification for all systems developed and installed in the Karma.

That certification followed extreme testing of the vehicle, involving laboratory simulations of thermal incidents and on-the-road tests in extreme climate conditions.

No incidents of any kind involving engine systems were found.


Paul Boskovitch, Director of Powertrain & Engineering of Fisker Automotive, said: "Our technologies and engine design have been fully tested and certified at the highest level. It is irresponsible and ill-informed for technology pundits to suggest otherwise in order to secure media attention for unfounded claims."

Background: The Karma under-hood thermal environment was designed using the latest Computational Fluid Dynamic (CFD) software packages. Evaluations of the results were performed both by the Fisker Thermal team and external consultants.

Testing involved thorough road and lab exercises, including multiple hot weather trips over thousands of miles of incident-free operation in Death Valley and Palm Springs, CA. Additional testing was also performed successfully at maximum and sustained speeds (125mph/201km/hr) on the Autobahn in Germany.

In addition to road-use testing, further wind tunnel testing was completed at test Labs in the USA. These tests were run specifically to simulate the most difficult of conditions, those observed in the Middle East (GCC) and Africa.

Testing for these hot weather conditions was run according to the manufacturer’s engine specifications for the 2-liter Ecotec engine installed in the Karma. The attached Table shows the conditions for typical vehicle tests by region. As indicated, the tests adopted for the Fisker Karma were conducted under the most stringent applications for the Middle East & Africa.

The Fisker Karma passed all tests without incident.

Cooling algorithms have been developed to ensure that at power off and under certain conditions the vehicle cooling fan maintains circulation in the engine compartment in order to remove any excess heat.

Packaging of the engine and surrounding components has been done within competitive benchmark standards and heat protection sleeves are placed on and around all hoses in or near high heat zones. All exhaust components have properly engineered heat shields and maintain the recommended separation distance between the shield, shielded components and affected components.

Fisker is using DEX-COOL 50/50 coolant with a zero flammability rating, according to the Chevron Manufacturers Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) #10445. This means that under no conditions is this material flammable.

The brake system booster which contains the brake system fluid is in a protected region behind the fender on the “cold” side of the engine. The power steering pump and fluid are also located on the “cold” side of the engine, near the front of the vehicle.

All materials used in the underhood environment are rated for use in the engine compartment and are either non-flammable or flame-retardant. Operation of the engine on-cycle has been thoroughly explained in public literature and utilizes a load-following operation. During this operation acceleration events are augmented by the battery and the engine operates along the load curves at or less than would be observed during operation in its original design application. In the Karma application the engine is never required to operate beyond 3500 RPM with a maximum output capability of 128 kW at this operating point. Well below the rated power of this engine with a maximum output power of 194 kW.

The Fisker Karma is an advanced technology vehicle and utilizes a control strategy that focuses on fuel efficiency as well as thermal and energy management. The engine power required at 125 mph (top speed) is less than 115 kW, well below the maximum capability of the engine for continuous operation. In addition the engine controls maintain a thermal watch of the engine and at a temperature of 117C begins to limit power in order to maintain coolant temperature below this point. This is well below the engine manufacturer’s recommended maximum temperature rating of 127C.

# # #

ABOUT FISKER AUTOMOTIVE, INC.
Fisker Automotive is an American car company, founded in 2007, committed to producing electric vehicles with extended range (EVer) that deliver uncompromised responsible luxury. The company is designing and developing the world’s first line of premium electric plug-in hybrids representing the company’s firm belief that environmentally conscious cars need not sacrifice passion, style, or performance. Fisker Automotive is a global company that is redefining luxury for the modern sports car buyer. For more information on the brand and the Fisker Karma Sedan, please go to http://fiskerautomotive.com.
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Here is Fisker's press release after the first fire. It is very factual and not at all self-congratulatory. To be fair, Fisker had a much tougher nut to crack because no one was sure what the actual cause of the fire was at the time. Tesla, in contrast, has a pretty good idea about what happened and how the fire may have started.
As soon as it was determined that the fire came from the right front (houston fire) we all "knew" exactly what it was.
 

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Elon did a great job of damage control, even if he overstated a few things about Tesla's safety vs. that of an ICE vehicle. For example, a single Tesla fire is too small a sample to claim that an ICE is five times more likely to catch on fire. Using that logic, before Tuesday's incident, an ICE was infinitely more likely to burn up.

And then there's the issue of diesel-powered ICE vehicles. This video comparison between gasoline and diesel combustibility speaks for itself:


The army currently uses a diesel fuel formulation in their combat vehicles for obvious reasons. The use of EV technology is being investigated since having a stealth and/or a redundant powertrain is highly desirable. However, the use of Li-ion batteries presents a significant challenge - no only in the application but in storage as well. If the Army goes electric, battery-swapping stations will be mandatory. This presentation is an eye-opener:

http://www.nfpa.org/~/media/Files/proceedings/marlairlisbonapresentation.pdf
 

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We received the direct mail letter regarding the fire, too. Probably because we had been a deposit holder for the Model S. It was a masterful PR piece. Even to the point of offering Mr. Carlson a loaner. Tesla is turning out to be a class act.
 

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