NHTSA chief Strickland discusses Tesla probe at Los Angeles Auto Show

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is the government’s auto safety watchdog, announced this week that it would investigate the Tesla Model S electric car after two of the vehicles struck road debris and caught fire. Tesla is co-operating with the investigation, which may or may not lead to a recall if NHTSA finds a safety defect.

At the Los Angeles Auto Show on Wednesday, NHTSA chief David Strickland answered questions about the investigation.


Q: Why investigate now, after a Model S caught fire this month in Tennessee, when you didn’t after the first fire, which happened last month in Washington state?

Strickland: Well, the first fire really was sort of anomalous, one point of data. And we are an investigatory agency where we follow trends. And it was really tough to say that you could have a really extreme accident, which is literally anomalous, and you don’t know whether it is a trend or not. With the second crash we saw a number of similarities from the Tennessee crash, the newer crash, to the Washington state crash. With those particular similarities, the investigatory team came to me with a recommendation that we should have a preliminary evaluation, which is what I agreed to do.


Q: Are you going to look into the fire of a Model S in Mexico last month?

Strickland: No, it’s outside of our jurisdiction. Clearly if any information that Tesla has about the Mexico crash that could be important in terms of other issues, that may be relatable to our investigation for the Washington and Tennessee crashes, of course. But because it is a different country, that is outside of our scope, and we don’t involve ourselves in using that as a data point.


Q: Do you think Tesla’s battery is too close to the ground?

Strickland: At this point right now we really are in preliminary evaluation of the crash and the crash mode and the counter measures, so we’re in no position to make a decision. That’ll be part of, when we do make a decision in regards to Tesla countermeasures and whether there is a defect or not. That is when you’ll have an explanation from the agency.