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Musk’s Fire Numbers Are a Stretch, But Teslas Are Safe

Elon Musk, maker of sports cars, solar farms and space ships, tends to make dramatic claims that challenge popular wisdom, and he’s often right. Not always.

Bloomberg News recently published a story about Musk’s sniping at car regulators for using the term “recall” to describe Tesla modifications to prevent overheating. (Musk hates the word “recall.”) During the reporting of the story, the billionaire co-founder of Tesla pushed back against the flak the Model S has taken after several accidents resulted in fires:

“We’ve now almost 30,000 Tesla vehicles on the road. Fire incidents are one in 10,000. For gasoline cars, it’s one in 1,300. That doesn't make any sense to us,” he said. “We should be applauded for how amazing our car is for never catching on fire relative to a gasoline car.”

According to Musk’s figures, conventional gasoline cars are actually eight times more likely to catch fire than battery-powered Teslas. Eight times. That doesn't make sense to me, either. Here’s why:

Musk’s statistical comparison doesn't pass a basic sniff test. He’s comparing the number of fires in a year among all U.S. cars to the number of fires for Teslas. That seems reasonable, until you consider that more than three quarters of the Teslas he’s referring to haven’t even been on the road for a year.

Roughly 22,450 of the company’s 27,400 lifetime car sales were in 2013. In fact, 6,900 Teslas, or a quarter of the vehicles the company has ever made, were sold in the last three months alone. The average Tesla hasn’t been driven long enough for Musk’s numbers to work.

A more useful statistic would be the average number of miles driven before a fire breaks out. Fortunately, those statistics are available.

Three Tesla fires have been reported after more than 200 million miles traveled, according to Tesla spokeswoman Alexis Georgeson. The U.S. average is 194,000 fires for the 2.97 trillion miles driven annually (no, the “t” in trillion isn’t a typo).

That brings us to a ratio of one Tesla fire for every 66.6 million miles driven. The average car on the road: one fire for every 15.5 million miles. By this comparison, gasoline cars is still a striking four times more likely to catch fire than Teslas.

But even this miles-to-fires comparison is overly generous to Tesla. My analysis compares brand-new $80,000 flagship Teslas with the aging American fleet of cars, which are 11.4 years old on average and may be more prone to failure. A fairer comparison, if the data were available, would be to put the Teslas up against brand-new BMWs, or Toyotas.

Worth noting is that this method also doesn’t isolate the cause of the fires to make direct comparisons. The Tesla fires were triggered by collisions with road debris, a specific potential vulnerability that is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“These are very isolated incidents where you’re hitting a certain kind of debris in the road at very high speeds,” said Tesla's Georgeson. "The car immediately recognized that it had hit an object, informed the drivers to pull over immediately, and gave the drivers adequate time to pull over to get safely away."

There have been just three reported fires for Tesla so far, resulting in no injuries. Those aren’t a lot of data points, but the statistical trend for Tesla isn’t a bad one. Considering the number of Teslas on the road and the number of miles they’ve clocked, Musk is right in saying that this fire-safety “problem” doesn’t look like much of a problem.

Overall crash safety should be of greater interest to car buyers than the less-common risk of fires. Tesla’s Model S was given the highest safety rating the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can give. That’s an area where Musk really does have numbers he can brag about.

More by Tom Randall:

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