Another Tesla crash, another knee-jerk overreaction on Wall Street

After a series of high-profile battery fires in Model S sedans last fall, CEO Elon Musk was quick to defend Tesla Motors’ safety record — and quick to decry the media frenzy surrounding each incident. It’s looking more and more like he had a good point.

In one crash last October, a driver in Mexico slammed his Model S into a roundabout at 110 mph before careening into a concrete wall and tree. The driver walked away. (Technically, ran away, as he was allegedly drunk.) But shares in Tesla took a severe hit, thanks to that and other crashes, plunging more than 28 percent by year’s end.

Tesla stock has recovered impressively this year, but are suddenly dipping again after a much-publicized July 4 crash, in which a stolen Model S split in half, sending burning and popping battery packs scattered across a Los Angeles street after plowing into cars and, ultimately, a lightpole at 100 mph.

In a predictable knee-jerk overreaction, Tesla shares have dropped more than 4 percent in the past two days, as investors freak out over the vision of burning battery packs. Tesla will likely have to go to PR damage-control mode to reassure skittish investors and potential buyers. But perhaps it’s better to take a Musk-ian view of the crash:

– The driver survived. Look at the photos of the crash scene and just try to imagine that.

Update: The driver later died. Still, if I was going to crash into a light post, I’d want to be in a Model S.

– While the battery packs did catch fire and explode, remember the car hit a lightpost at 100 mph and split in half. Under similar circumstances, it’s a safe bet that most cars — gas or electric — would end up ablaze too.

Last year, the Model S received a 5-star safety rating by the NHTSA, the highest marks ever given to a car.

In November, Musk railed against “false perception(s) about the safety of electric cars” in a blog post, noting that “the Model S is safer in an accident than any other vehicle without exception,” and that drivers “are more than four and a half times more likely to experience a fire in a gasoline car than a Model S.”

Neither Musk nor Tesla has officially commented on the latest crash yet, but spokesman Simon Sproule told Bloomberg News: “We’ve asked to take a look at the vehicle as soon as that’s possible. . . . There aren’t so many S’s involved in major crashes, and certainly not quite like this one, so we absolutely want to have a look to understand what happened.”

Of about 30,000 Model S’s that have been sold, six have caught fire in collisions. No Model S driver has been killed in a crash. In roughly 250 million gas-powered cars in the U.S., there were an average of 65,000 fires a year between 2008 and 2010, according to a federal report, with 300 killed.

Perhaps it’s time for us think about this rationally. GM stock doesn’t fall every time one of its cars crashes (though its stock is down more than 8 percent this year after revelations of a recall scandal that contributed to at least 13 deaths, which seems slightly worse than battery packs catching fire after a 100-mph impact).

Look, cars can be dangerous. But the Model S has proven that even if you drive it like a maniac straight out of “Grand Theft Auto 5,” you can walk away from a crash. There’s tangible evidence that it’s incredibly safe and sturdy. Personally, I tend to be dubious whenever billionaires talk about how great their product is. But in this case, I’m listening to Elon.


At top: The aftermath of the July 4 crash involving a Tesla Model S (black, in center) in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

Mike Murphy Mike Murphy (382 Posts)

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