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Tesla Slips From Pedestal That May Have Been Too High

Oct 6, 2013
Originally published on October 18, 2013 9:52 am

Over the last year of so, Tesla motors has received some really good press. But this past week, it's been knocked off its pedestal.

"We're a country that likes to put things up on pedestals and then tear them down from pedestals. We do that with people, I think we do that with things," says Jack Nerad, an analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

The electric car company was downgraded by analysts on Tuesday and a video of a Tesla Model S on fire went viral. The company's stock took a hit.

Nerad says the story of Tesla needs to be separated from some basic facts about the company and the auto industry. For instance, while the video of a Tesla on fire is dramatic, there were 187,500 car fires in 2011.

"There are car fires every day, all kinds of car fires from all kinds of cars, and they don't make the national news or press the price of the stock of the company that built the car way, way down," he says. "But in this case, I think ... everything around Tesla is a bit overwrought."

Tesla's stock has gone through the roof. Its Model S has turned even the most hardened car reviewers into swooning teenage fans. One of them was Consumer Reports. Jake Fisher, head of automotive testing for the nonprofit, says if you're going to be the new car on the block, expect a lot more scrutiny.

"Tesla kind of gives an insight of ... perhaps the kinds of cars that we're going to be driving in 10 years or 15 years. So if there's a hole in that, and suddenly we're finding out that, well, lithium ion battery packs aren't going to work because there's a fire hazard with them. That is scary," Fisher says.

The car that caught fire in the video had run over a large metal object, which Fisher says you shouldn't do in any car. But with the all-electric Tesla, its battery pack is along the bottom of the car, and there is some question as to whether that may make the car more vulnerable to fire.

Tesla points out that the early warning system in the Model S told the driver to pull over and get out of the car before the vehicle caught fire — and there were no injuries.

Fisher says you can't test for every single accident scenario in a car.

"Whenever you go out and try to get the newest technology or the newest thing, you are taking a little bit of a chance. You know, there's lot of indications that Tesla is holding together and is very well-designed and performs very well," he says.

"But there aren't a whole lot of electric cars with large batteries out there in circulation."

Fisher says it'll take thousands of hours of real-world test driving to find all the kinks in any car.

"You know, the people who had the first iPhone or first tablet or first digital camera, they were in some ways part of the test, weren't they? They were learning along with the company," he says.

But for Tesla owners, that test comes with a price — upwards of $70,000 a pop.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath.

We turn now to a story about a viral video that's responsible for knocking a celebrated figure off of a pedestal. No, it's not a young starlet or a middle-aged politician, but a car, an electric car. Stock in the automaker Tesla plummeted after this video of a Tesla Model S on fire hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF TESLA VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Wow, I can feel the heat in here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, that's a Tesla, dude.

RATH: That one video cost the company billions in market value as shares fell over the course of just a few days.

NPR's Sonari Glinton has the story.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Over the last year or so, Tesla motors has gotten some really good press.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tesla Motors has been racking up awards with the new Model S.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And the small American company Tesla is doing better than expected.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Tesla, as you may know, makes high-end electric cars.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The luxury all-electric carmaker Tesla Motors has passed a major milestone.

GLINTON: And that was just NPR. Heck, those were just parts of my stories.

JACK NERAD: We're a country that likes to put things up on pedestals and then tear them down from pedestals. We do that with people, I think we do that with things.

GLINTON: Jack Nerad is an analyst with Kelley Blue Book. He says the story of Tesla needs to be separated from some basic facts about the company and the auto industry as well. For instance, while the video of a Tesla on fire is dramatic, in 2011, for example, there were 187,000 car fires.

NERAD: There are car fires every day, all kinds of car fires from all kinds of cars, and they don't make the national news or press the price of the stock of the company that built the car way, way down. But in this case, I think there's - everything around Tesla is a bit overwrought.

GLINTON: Tesla stock has gone through the roof. Its model S has turned even the most hardened car reviewers into swooning teenage fans. One of them was Consumer Reports. Jake Fisher is head of automotive testing there. He says if you're going to be the new car on the block, it's going to come with a lot of scrutiny.

JAKE FISHER: Tesla kind of gives an insight of, you know, perhaps the kinds of cars that we're going to be driving in 10 years or 15 years. So if there's a hole in that, and suddenly we're finding out that, well, lithium ion battery packs aren't going to work because there's a fire hazard with them, that is scary.

GLINTON: Now, the car that caught fire in the video ran over a large metal object, which Fisher says you shouldn't do in any car. But with the all-electric Tesla, its battery pack is along the bottom of the car. And there is some question as to whether that may make it more vulnerable to fire.

Tesla points out that the Model S' early warning system told the driver to pull over and get out of the car before the vehicle caught fire. And there were no injuries. Fisher says you can't test for every single accident scenario in a car.

Whenever you go out and try to get a newest technology or the newest thing, you are taking a little bit of a chance. You know, there's lots of indications that the Tesla is holding together and is very well-designed and performs very well. But there aren't a whole lot of electric cars with large batteries out there in circulation.

Fisher says it'll take thousands of hours of real-world driving to find all the kinks in any car.

You know, the people who had the first iPhone or the first tablet or first digital camera, they were in some ways part of the test, weren't they? You know, they were learning along with the company.

But for Tesla owners, that test will cost you upwards of $70,000 a pop. Sonari Glinton, NPR News, Culver City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.