Tesla adds safety shields, feds end probe; and is Reno frontrunner for Gigafactory?

A government safety investigation into Tesla Motors’ popular Model S electric sedans closed Friday, after founder and CEO Elon Musk announced additional undercarriage shields would be installed on the cars in order to reduce the risk of fires caused by road debris penetrating the car’s battery.

In a blog post, Musk said triple-layered shielding, including a titanium plate, has been added to all Model S’s built since March 6, and existing cars will be retrofitted for free, in an effort “to bring this risk down to virtually zero (and) to give Model S owners complete peace of mind.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation last fall following a pair of high-profile car fires caused by road debris. No one was injured in the fires. Through a software update, Tesla later raised the height of the Model S.

“Tesla’s revision of vehicle ride height and addition of increased underbody protection should reduce both the frequency of underbody strikes and the resultant fire risk,” the NHTSA said in its report Friday. “A defect trend has not been identified.”

Musk said the relatively inexpensive shielding would have minimal effect on the car’s handling and weight.

“The protective qualities of the underbody shields are substantial,” Musk said in the blog post, but “are not needed for a high level of safety. However, there is significant value to minimizing owner inconvenience in the event of an impact and addressing any lingering public misperception about electric vehicle safety. . . . There is no safer car on the road than a Tesla.”

•  Meanwhile, Reno, Nev., is reported to be the frontrunner for Tesla’s proposed lithium-ion battery “Gigafactory.” The Phoenix Business Journal reports Tesla is talking to Nevada officials about permits, zoning and land-use issues, all steps that apparently have yet to be taken with rival bids in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The Journal says a site at a former Air Force base 15 miles north of Reno appears to have the most potential, with 3,000 acres open to development and railroad access. It would also be the site closest to Tesla’s Fremont auto plant.

• And Tesla won an incremental victory this week in its fight to sell cars through its own stores in New Jersey. The looming April 1 ban on Tesla sales has been put off for two weeks, according to the president of the New Jersey auto dealers trade group, who added that dealers would support a longer extension while compromise legislation is hammered out. Two bills have been proposed to exempt Tesla from the state’s dealership laws. New Jersey is one of more than a dozen states where Tesla’s direct car sales are banned or in dispute.

 

At top: Tesla Model S file photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Mike Murphy Mike Murphy (354 Posts)

Mike Murphy is a web producer at the Mercury News, and also writes for Good Morning Silicon Valley and 60-Second Business Break.