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Tesla battery fires catch attention of safety agency

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has started to look into possible battery defects in Tesla sedans and SUVs after some cars spontaneously burst into flames. The development raises yet more safety concerns for the high-profile electric vehicle manufacturer.

[PALO ALTO] The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has started to look into possible battery defects in Tesla sedans and SUVs after some cars spontaneously burst into flames. The development raises yet more safety concerns for the high-profile electric vehicle manufacturer.

The safety agency sent a letter, dated Oct 24, to a Tesla lawyer telling the company that it is evaluating a petition to investigate defects in battery software updates in its 2012 through 2019 Model S and X vehicles.

In the letter, NHTSA also asked the company for an accounting of software updates to the battery management system as well as other documents, including consumer complaints and any reports related to the car fires.

For Tesla, the urgency to address safety concerns is paramount. The company has faced claims that the lithium-ion batteries in its vehicles spontaneously combusted in at least three incidents. In August, Walmart accused the company of selling it defective solar panels that started fires on the roofs of its stores.

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Tesla and NHTSA did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment. But the federal agency told Car and Driver magazine that it had "received a defect petition regarding the battery management software in certain Tesla Model S and Model X vehicles" and it would "carefully review the petition and relevant data". Car and Driver first reported the letter on Friday.

In September, a petition to NHTSA sent by attorney Edward Chen, who is representing Tesla owners, said that Tesla battery updates in May reduced the vehicles' range by about 25-30 miles (40-48km). In its letter, the agency demanded information from Tesla to help it evaluate whether the battery updates were made to address the spontaneous fires.

Tesla has until Nov 28 to fulfill NHTSA's request or it could face fines up to US$111.6 million, according to the federal agency's letter.

NYTIMES