A 2022 Tesla Model 3 caught fire and completely burned up in Newark, New Jersey, on 13 September 2023. I had a first responder contact who was on the scene and provided me with pictures and video as the event unfolded.
The driver reported hitting an object in the roadway shortly before the vehicle started displaying warnings that there was a critical problem. They then pulled over to the side of the road, notified authorities, and exited the vehicle safely before the battery pack started smoking badly and eventually erupted in flames.
The thing that initially stood out to me was how this sounded just like the vulnerability that the Tesla Model S had when it first launched, causing the NHTSA to launch a formal investigation. In that case, multiple vehicles went on fire after striking road debris before Tesla resolved the issue.
The solution was to add a titanium plate and an aluminium deflector under the vehicles, which better protected them from debris strikes. It worked, and very few Model S fires since then were due to a road debris strike.
However, since Tesla has sold more than four million Model 3 and Model Y vehicles combined worldwide, and there hasn't been a rash of similar incidents that lead to fires, I think it's safe to assume that this was an isolated problem where the debris was the right size and shape and struck the Model 3 in just the right place to penetrate the battery pack.
I should point out that EV fires caused by debris strikes aren't unique to Tesla vehicles. Any EV can have a catastrophic battery failure from an impact under the right conditions. In fact, an Xpeng P7 made the news last year for that exact reason.
Gallery: Tesla Model 3 Fire
EV fires are problematic
As is the case with most electric vehicle fires, putting out the Model 3 fire proved difficult for the Newark Fire Department. Time after time, after extinguishing the flame, the vehicle started to smoke and then flame up again.
That doesn't happen with conventionally-fuelled internal combustion vehicles. When the fire departments put them out, they stay out. But with EVs, depending on the battery chemistry, the vehicles can enter a state called thermal runaway.
Thermal runaway is a phenomenon in which the lithium-ion battery cells begin a self-heating, oxygen-creating state. With thermal runaway, the battery pack continues to reignite after it's been extinguished until there's nothing left of the battery pack to burn.
Some battery chemistries are more prone to thermal runaway than others. Tesla uses different battery chemistries in its different models and also in different world markets. The 2022 Model 3 that had the fire was likely using lithium nickel cobalt aluminium oxide (NCA) cells, (although I erroneously said they were nickel cobalt manganese (NCM) in the video). Both NCA and NCM battery cells are more likely to enter a state of thermal runaway than lithium iron phosphate (LFP) batteries.
The fact that the cells in this specific Model 3 were likely NCA cells and not LFP likely played a role in why the fire department had so much trouble putting the fire out. LFP batteries have a much higher ignition point (~500°F compared to ~300°F for NCA/NCM) so they are less likely to enter thermal runaway.
The remains of the battery pack fell out of the vehicle when it was towed from the scene.
Electric vehicles are statistically less likely to catch fire
Many people incorrectly believe that EVs are more likely to catch fire, and that's simply not true. Part of the reason for that is that when an EV does catch fire, it's much more likely to be reported in the news.
The National Fire Protection Agency reports that there are roughly 170,000 car fires every year. For every 100,000 electric vehicles, there are about twenty-five fires per year. For the same 100,000 combustion vehicles, there are 1,530 fires per year. That works out to combustion vehicles having more than sixty-one times the amount of fires than electric vehicles do.
But there are many more older combustion vehicles on the road, so I suspect that number may be skewed some. Once we have twenty and thirty-year-old EVs out there the frequency of them having a fire will likely increase with age. Still, I doubt the gap in frequency will be completely closed because it's such a great difference. Even if it's cut in half once we have a lot of older EVs on the road and they are only, say, thirty times less likely to have a fire, we'll all be better off from it.