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Tesla CEO says no recall necessary after Model S fires

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Paul Sakuma/AP/File

(Read caption) Tesla CEO Elon Musk walks past the Tesla Model S after a news conference at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif. Mr. Musk says there's no need for a recall after three Model S electric cars caught fire after crashes in the past six weeks.

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Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk is on the defensive after a series of crash-related fires have raised concerns over the safety of the company's Model S electric car. 

The concern is unnecessary, Mr. Musk says. The three fires occurring in the past six weeks were the result of freak accidents, according to the Tesla CEO, not design flaws in the Model S.

Still, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is weighing a formal investigation after the third fire took place Nov. 6 in Tennessee. The federal agency will determine whether there is any need for a recall – a notion Musk is already dismissing.

Tesla Motors has had a string of good news over the past year – winning major industry awards and earning a top safety rating from the NHTSA. The success has put a bright spotlight on Musk, which has helped boost the profile of Tesla Motors and electric cars in general. So far, the Tesla CEO isn't shying away from that spotlight when the news isn't so great. 

"There's no reason for a recall," Mr. Musk said during a conference Tuesday hosted by The New York Times Dealbook blog. "If you read the headlines, it sounds like Teslas have a greater propensity to catch fires than other cars. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth."

Public perception plays a large role in attitudes toward electric cars, and Americans have been slow to embrace the technology, particularly after spontaneous battery fires plagued earlier generations of electric cars.

It's not surprising, then, that Musk has been outspoken on the issue. The Tesla chief executive officer is extroverted even by the standards of the modern CEO. He has an avid Twitter following and often responds to potential controversies with detailed blog posts he writes himself. In February, when a New York Times writer wrote a review of the Model S that he found objectionable, he took to the Tesla blog to offer a contrary narrative. 

He's using a similar approach in response to the recent fires. After the first incident, he posted an account on the Tesla blog and calculated that drivers are five times more likely to experience a car fire in a conventional gasoline car than in a Tesla. Since then, two additional fires have occurred, but Musk insists the car is among the safest on the road.

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After the latest fire, the company posted an account of the incident from the driver of the Model S that was punctured by a rusty three-pronged trailer hitch.

"I am thankful to God that I was totally uninjured in any way from this impact," writes Juris Shibayama on Tesla's blog. "Had I not been in a Tesla, that object could have punched through the floor and caused me serious harm."  

After he drove over the detached trailer hitch on an interstate highway, the Model S issued visual warnings, asking him to pull over, according to Mr. Shibayama. He was able to exit the car before it caught fire. He was unharmed.

"This experience does not in any way make me think that the Tesla Model S is an unsafe car," Shibayama wrote. "I would buy another one in a heartbeat."


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