High-Speed Tesla Crash Tests Electric Car Safety

By Alan Ohnsman | July 11, 2014

A man who stole a Tesla Model S on July 4 in Los Angeles died this week from injuries sustained in a high-speed crash that hurt at least seven other people.

Joshua Michael Flot, 26, of Inglewood, California, died on July 7 at 2:23 p.m. local time, Ed Winter, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Coroner’s department, said in a phone interview today. Flot’s identity and death weren’t disclosed until July 10 to allow time to notify family members, Winter said, who confirmed Flot was the driver of the car.

“We are saddened by the harm that resulted from the July 4 theft and crash,” said Simon Sproule, a spokesman for Tesla Motors Inc., the electric-car maker that’s based in Palo Alto, California. “We are assisting the authorities as needed as they continue their investigations.”

The driver took the car early July 4 from Tesla’s service center in west Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Police Department said yesterday. He outran police before crashing at high speed into vehicles on La Brea Avenue in West Hollywood. The vehicle also 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 driver was thrown from the Model S, said Fire Captain Rick Flores.

The holiday-weekend incident revived 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.

Crash Victim

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.

“I didn’t hear anything before it happened — no sirens, no nothing,” Hakobyan said yesterday, 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.

Minor Injuries

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.

Flot’s death is the first for a Model S driver involved in a collision that Tesla is aware of, Sproule said.

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.

‘Lab Testing’

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

Tesla slipped 1.6 percent to $219.46 at the close in New York today. The company, whose shares rose 46 percent this year, 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.

Gasoline Fires

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 Casey Grant, who studies automotive fires for the Quincy, Massachusetts-based non-profit that helps firefighters and emergency crews improve safety techniques, in a phone interview.

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.

“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.

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.

‘Short Circuit’

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.”

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.”

“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.”
–With assistance from Romy Varghese in Philadelphia.

Topics California Auto Tesla

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