TESLA MOTORS, RESPONDING to a federal investigation of two recent Model S fires, is pushing a wireless update that will automatically raise the car’s ride height at highway speeds, a measure CEO Elon Musk insists is “about reducing the chances of underbody impact damage, not improving safety.”
The move, announced today in a blog post by Musk, came just hours before the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration launched an inquiry into two recent Model S fires sparked by traffic accidents. In the most recent fire, a Model S caught fire after its driver ran over a piece of debris in the road, apparently puncturing or denting the battery pack. Federal investigators said the investigation was prompted by cars in Washington and Tennessee experiencing an “undercarriage strike with metallic roadway debris.”
A third fire occurred in Mexico when a driver lost control of his car, went through a wall and into a tree.
Musk claims in his post that Tesla invited the feds to investigate, believing the inquiry might ease concerns that electric vehicles might be unsafe. The NHTSA told The Los Angeles Times that wasn’t the case. “In regards to Tesla, the agency notified the automaker of its plans to open a formal investigation and requested their cooperation,” the agency said, “which is standard agency practice for all investigations.”
Whatever the case, Tesla is moving quickly to respond with a software update to the car’s suspension system. The automaker is uniquely positioned to offer such a quick, user-friendly update because it already conducts software updates wirelessly. With a few lines of code and the push of a button, Tesla can assuage consumer concerns while skirting any question of safety. By adapting the air suspension to increase the ground clearance, the update could be seen as a safety precaution, but that would be a tacit admission of a problem with the car. Instead, Musk made it clear the update is designed to minimize damage to the car.