Remember when Samsung Galaxy phones were exploding and catching on fire? As you know by now, lithium-ion batteries produce an incredible amount of heat. Even a small lithium-ion battery such as the one in the Samsung Note 7 can overheat, so it’s no wonder that a more substantial car battery, like the ones in the Tesla models S and X, carries even higher risk.
Lithium-Ion Battery Issues With Samsung and Tesla
No matter the size of the battery, thermal regulation is necessary to prevent overheating. When battery cells aren’t adequately cooled and catch fire, people can be seriously injured, which is what happened with the Samsung Galaxy when the system failed. Numerous injuries were sustained as a result. While the Samsung issue was a terrible one, deaths have occurred in Tesla cars.
You may recall the wrongful death suit filed against Tesla in 2019 when Omar Awan died after his Model S Tesla crashed into a palm tree in Florida. It wasn’t the collision that killed Awan. Instead, it was the subsequent battery fire and the fact that the protruding door handles malfunctioned trapping him inside with no means of escape.
When Disruptive Technology and Chinese Manufacturing Meet
Both Samsung and Tesla had components produced in Chinese factories. Samsung issued a recall of the Galaxy Note 7 and recovered most of them. But what about Tesla?
Tesla pioneered both their patented battery packs and the cooling system, which includes a pipe that snakes around the battery cells and contacts each cell. The Tesla battery pack was designed to dissipate heat using coiled plates, which transfer and dissipate the heat through the radiator. Tesla then outsourced the cooling tubes from a Chinese company. According to a Business Insider report, third-party testing revealed that the cooling tubes were susceptible to small holes and cracks. The report went on to say that the cooling tubes didn’t align with the car connections and had to be force-fitted, sometimes with a hammer.
Long-Standing Issues: Did Tesla Know?
\Thermal runaway is a term used by battery-fire experts to describe what may be part of the issue with Tesla batteries. They believe the glycol coolant, which is flammable, can cause a battery fire in the Model S if it comes into contact with a broken battery cell, especially upon collision. Once a battery cell catches fire, the coolant can exacerbate the problem by spreading to other battery cells. Aside from crashes, lithium-ion batteries can also become hot enough that they simply catch fire.
Battery fires in the Tesla have indeed occurred spontaneously although the extent to which is a bit of a mystery. However, Tesla limited the battery charge in the Model S to 80% of capacity in May of 2019, which begs the question as to what they knew and when they knew it.
Business Insider reported that Tesla knew the coolant systems had the potential to leak since 2012 and still installed them in the Model S up until 2016. At that point, they cut off ties with China and brought the cooling tube manufacturing in-house. Internal documents, though, reveal that quality checks identified the issue and escalated it to senior management back in 2012. What happened from 2012 to 2016?
Business Insider Report Leads to Investigation
All of this has sparked investigations by federal safety officials. Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board have issued statements acknowledging their involvement. While the NTSB has no enforcement power, their report on electric cars and battery fires will prove insightful. The NHTSA, who is responsible for enforcement, noted that manufacturers are required to notify them within five days of any safety-related defect. It appears that Tesla never provided any such notification, nor have they provided comments on the issues.
Tesla has pioneered electric car technology, and that is a benefit to all. However, the data suggests that the coolant leaks and battery overheating issues present a clear and present risk. Tesla not only has yet to acknowledge this but may have manufactured and sold defective cars in spite of it. More information will come out shortly. If you have a Tesla, you should be aware of the safety issues.
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