DETROIT — It’s an automaker’s worst nightmare: graphic video footage of one of its cars engulfed in flames after an accident.
In the case of Tesla Motors, the fire that destroyed a Model S electric car Tuesday is a stunning reality check for a company that has garnered almost unanimous praise for its battery-powered vehicles.
The fire, on a highway exit in Kent, Wash., poses a serious challenge for Tesla and, at the same time, prompts new questions about the safety of lithium-ion batteries.
“Tesla was a success story where everything was going their way,” said Karl Brauer, an analyst with the auto-research firm Kelley Blue Book. “The question now is, how do they deal with this adversity?”
Battery experts said that the Tesla fire was bound to generate new questions about the stability of lithium-ion batteries in an automotive collision.
The batteries are prized in many advanced products for their high power and long life, but they have been a consistent source of problems across industries. This year, regulators grounded Boeing’s fleet of 787 Dreamliners after the batteries caught fire, and laptop computers and cellphones using the batteries have ignited when they became overheated or damaged.
The video of the Tesla fire — which was shot by someone in a car passing the accident scene — showed the front of the vehicle in flames.
Initial attempts to douse the fire were unsuccessful. “The fire appeared to be extinguished, then reignited underneath the vehicle,” the report said.
Analysts said the seemingly routine nature of the accident made the fiery aftermath all the more frightening.
“It’s a relatively innocuous occurrence to hit something in the road,” Brauer said. “But in this case there’s a fire, and a fire that’s difficult to put out.”
Auto experts say it is critical that the company tackle the fire issue head-on, working with regulators to determine a cause, and then developing changes to the car to prevent it from happening again.
“You have to respond openly and honestly with the public, and work through this with NHTSA,” said Jason Vines, an industry consultant.