What’s The Difference Between A Ford Pinto And A Tesla Model S? According To NHTSA Not Much

In my view, the bureaucrats at NHTSA remind me of grounded ducks who create just enough quacking to irritate the people they’re supposed to serve. In the real-world, then, this view can also apply when it comes to today’s story of the Tesla Model S, and its tendency to catch fire when struck by a couple of stones on its undertray, or if you prefer a more historical view, the original ‘ball of fire’, more properly known as the Ford Pinto.

In the case of Tesla’s backstory; the political wonks in DC had been lock-stepping along in support of Elon Musk’s pretty, premium zipster since it rolled out of the design shop in San Carlos, in an attempt to create an ideal, poster-car view of what eco-friendly, 21st Century vehicles were supposed to be when they grew up. However, as soon as Tesla cars started catching fire for no apparent reason, even the dullest bureaucrats had to call for ‘action’ in order to help stem a flood of bad press, equal to the number of flamers parked alongside the Nation’s highway’s and byway’s.

So, in an attempt to ‘get to the bottom of the problem’, and in order to ‘protect the public,’ NHTSA quickly mounted an investigation into Tesla’s multiple conflagrations. However, three months passed with not much action to discuss until last Thursday. Then, in a clear attempt to gilt what had, by then, become a smoking turd for the EV maker and its Federal green-car proponents, the agency suddenly decided to close its investigation not with a bang, but a simpering whimper.

In what could only be defined as one of the stickiest of all soft-soaps, NHTSA opined that it, “believe(d) impacts with road debris are normal and foreseeable. (However), in this case, 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. A defect trend has not been identified. Accordingly, the investigation is closed” (all italics are mine).

So, let me get this straight, as someone who has been around cars, and the auto business since I could stand on the front seat to see over the dashboard of my Dad’s ‘54 Pontiac; NHTSA determined that there was no ‘defect trend’, yet further concluded that Tesla’s alleged ‘fix’ would protect against a non-defective, er, defect? Wow, talk about falling down the rabbit hole.

As confusing as that may be, we’ve seen this kind of safety two-step in the past, however, and it also involved the tendency of one or more passenger vehicles to catch fire while operating on public roadways. It may be remembered that, in an influential 1972 lawsuit entitled Grimshaw v. Ford Motor Co., the plaintiff’s legal team asserted that a design deficiency in the gas tank mount of the Ford Pinto tended to trigger fires when involved in rear-end collisions.

ford pinto fire


But, although significant private-citizen watchdog’s of the day, lead by Ralph Nader and supported by noted green publication Mother Jones, directed prodigious amounts of yellow journalism at the Ford brand, NHTSA, the guys who were Federally-charted to ‘keep the driving public safe,’ never called for a production recall, nor did any of its formal findings ever suggest that the design of the tank mount itself was faulty even though, by then, 27 people had been killed. Granted, the agency did, ultimately, announce a Pinto recall; but that was six years after the fact in 1978. And, as it happened, a national Pinto recall was already underway by Ford Motor Company itself driven by continually negative press reports, lagging market share, and at the behest of its own board of directors.

Consequently, the odd similarity between both findings may be worth some consideration since, in general, NHTSA always seems to leave the consumer with nothing more satisfying than a homily suggesting that, “the more things change, the more things stay the same.” So, if you’re running down the road in your Tesla Model S, and smell smoke after road clag strikes the underside of your $100,000 golf cart? Well, it could be time to get out and wait for the local fire brigade; ‘fix’ or ‘no fix’. Because based on track record alone, the agency’s ‘all-hat-no-cattle’ safety investigations tend to leave the public nothing useful to lean on other than hot air, singed feathers, or worse.

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  1. Is this really where you are going to go, comparing it to a Pinto? Try comparing the 280,000 ICE car fires every year – they happen so often they aren’t even news. Given your obvious biases in the article (for example, nobody who has ever ridden in a Model S would call it a $100k golf cart) I shouldn’t be feeding the trolls, but this is more for people reading your article that might not know better.

    Drive your gas-powered car into a roundabout fast enough that you take out concrete walls and a tree and see if it doesn’t catch fire, or hit debris at highway speed and see if you would prefer that coming into the passenger compartment rather than being stopped by the battery.

    Since you have a motorsports background, consider why fire suppression systems are in the car — hint: it isn’t for the battery.

    • Rick wrote, “On the other hand, however, the various Tesla incidents did occur while doing nothing more than operating as advertised after being struck by ‘foreseeable’ small-particulate road debris; again according to NHTSA.”

      I admit I have not read the Tesla manual. However, if taking a round-a-bout at 106 mph, blasting through two concrete walls and impacting a tree is “doing nothing more than operating as advertised.” It then strikes me as perhaps warranting a short disclaimer in writing the section of the manual that refers to what Rick calls out as normal operating parameters.

      Especially the section in the manual that refers to, “the various Tesla incidents did occur while doing nothing more than operating as advertised after being struck by ‘foreseeable’ small-particulate road debris;” That section is a real killer!

      At least if I were writing the manual for a 0 to 60 at 4.2 seconds, 130 mph “golf cart,” I or, most assuredly my insurance company, would maybe think about adding that paragraph, for the symmetry of it, LOL!

    • Pinto – weren’t those made with 1970’s technology to 1970’s safety standards? Not gonna fly too well with NHTSA, not one bit 🙂

  2. Dear John, thanks for the response. In turn, I will endeavor to respond to your comments as directly as possible. To whit;

    1. Unfortunately, I failed to get you to the focus of the op-ed. To clarify, therefore, the piece was intended to suggest weaknesses associated with NHTSA’s investigative processes, policies, and failures to render a full accounting
    regarding the Tesla incidents by leveraging the more historical Ford experience.

    2. I didn’t ‘go anywhere’ in terms of making the comparisons between the two
    events, i.e. the Ford Pinto v. Tesla S. The facts in both cases were, and are,
    just that; facts.

    3. In the case of your assertion that “280,000” ‘vehicular fires’ occur annually, however, the actual total is 287,000 and generally based on 2006-07 statistics provided by the DOT-operated, National Fire Incident Response System (NFIRS), (the most currently updated national automotive statistics available).

    According to NFIRS, the causes of vehicle fires during the stipulated time-frame were:

    49% Mechanical malfunction
    23% Electrical
    8% Intentional event
    3% Collision or rollover
    5% Exposure to secondary fire

    All categories aside, however, please note that there is no NFIRS category for ‘Rolling down the road, struck by ‘forseeable’ road debris and subsequently
    caught fire; but we can’t figure out why.’ Again, I was interested in developing the ‘why’ of NHTSA’s non-response by using event parallels, not the ‘what’ of Tesla’s engineering, or whether it is a good or bad product.

    4. In the case of your suggesting that I should “…drive (my) gas-powered car into a roundabout etc. etc.” Truth be told, in another lives I’ve done just that and guess what; none of those cars decided to catch fire. On the other hand, however, the various Tesla incidents did occur while doing nothing more than operating as advertised after being struck by ‘foreseeable’ small-particulate road debris; again according to NHTSA. This, in my view should be a problem worth considering, rather than simply accepting Tesla’s work-around with no significant third-party engineering discussion. That’s how we got to the Apollo, Challenger and Columbia events, along with the original Pinto, and now the Tesla. Simply saying ‘we’ll fix it,’ doesn’t cut the mustard in this case, because Tesla can’t ‘fix’ a problem until
    ‘someone’ other than the manufacturer alone gets involved with understanding what happened, but more importantly, why.

    5. Your final response is a clear instance of the differences between apples
    and oranges but, factually speaking, racecars and consumer cars are
    entirely different animals from an engineering perspective. Nonetheless, and to
    your point specifically, racecars rarely carry integrated fire suppression systems.
    Individual extinguishers yes; in certain pro-am sportscar, and/or dragster classes.
    But more times than not, cars at the top tiers are typically protected by highly-stringent anti-fire engineering requirements, plus applied use of deeply-integrated non-flammable materials alone, while practical fire suppression is typically left to the auspices of local fire, and/or on-track emergency units to get the job done.

    I hope that I have provided an appropriate level of attention to your comments. It should be known that, rather than simply letting this topic die with a whimper, however, my Editor and I have already discussed a follow up piece based on what ‘exactly’ Tesla is doing with its retro-fit going forward. So please tay tuned.

    • There are several things that speak to your obvious bias here, that no impartial account would either condone or ignore:

      “its tendency to catch fire when struck by a couple of stones on its undertray”

      What is the point of this misleading hyperbole? “A couple of stones” is not equivalent to an over-100mph impact with a concrete walls and two cars running over large, jagged pieces of metal.

      “Tesla cars started catching fire for no apparent reason”

      Ridiculous. Unless you also consider JFK’s head exploding into a pulpy mass was “for no apparent reason,” or the Concorde turning into a flamethrower was for “no apparent reason.” We know exactly what the reason is: it was struck, very hard, in each instance of a battery fire. They didn’t just randomly catch fire as you seem to imply.

      In fact, there is exactly one instance where there was an undetermined fire in a Tesla, from Toronto in February. The fire occurred when the car was garaged and unplugged, and it did not touch the battery, charging system, or drivetrain. As such, it can be reasonably isolated from Tesla’s status as an electric car. In other words, unrelated to any battery-puncturing business we are discussing here.

      “equal to the number of flamers parked alongside the Nation’s highway’s and byway’s.”

      That is, two. There were two non-immediate, completely injury-free fires in the United States, neither of which intruded into the passenger compartment. There was a high-speed but nonfatal crash in Mexico that was followed by a fire, and the aforementioned fluke in Toronto. That brings the international total to four. Mountain, meet molehill.

      “So, let me get this straight… NHTSA determined that there was no ‘defect trend’, yet further concluded that Tesla’s alleged ‘fix’ would protect against a non-defective, er, defect? Wow, talk about falling down the rabbit hole.”

      Is there supposed to be a contradiction here? Lack of a defect and measures designed to make a vehicle even safer than it already is are not mutually exclusive, it’s just common sense. Especially with pearl-clutchers like you blowing the fires completely out of proportion.

      At the end of the day, none of this matters anyway, as Tesla’s new underbody deflector and secondary titanium armor plating has been successfully tested 152 times, and is being retrofitted to all Teslas. At this rate, the first death in a Tesla will be due to a heart attack rather than a fire.

  3. The Pinto did not burn with a white hot flame and explode while expelling burning pieces of white hot battery all over the place. The Pinto just burnt out in one spot. That is the difference.


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