Fatal car crash involving Tesla reveals electric car cleanup-related challenges

A major accident in the South Bay claimed a life Friday morning. The driver of a Tesla Model X passed away after a three-car collision on the Highway 101 in Mountain View. 

That crash is also raising questions about how first responders handle debris from heavily damaged electric cars. For three hours, a pair of Tesla engineers performed a roadside tutorial in how to make it safe to remove a heavily damaged battery from an electric car. 

“We’re used to the regular vehicles. Now the batteries in these vehicles, we don’t know what’s in them, so we’re learning because obviously it’s not going to be the only crash,” said Art Montiel of the California Highway Patrol station in Redwood City.

The burnt out Model X shell wound up sitting in the shoulder of southbound 101 near Shoreline Boulevard after the collision, according to Montiel. Investigators said the Tesla’s driver ran into crash-cushions protecting the concrete point where the freeway separates from the Highway 85 High Occupancy Vehicle off-ramp.

Montiel says they have seen situations where drivers are traveling in the carpool lane and see the split at the last second, realizing it’s not where they want to go and changing their mind at the last second. 
The impact sent the Tesla airborne, and when it landed on the pavement, it was hit by two trailing cars – an Audi and a Mazda.

The Tesla’s driver died hours later at Stanford Hospital from injuries suffered in the crash. A fire erupted at the scene, engulfing the Model X, and exposing live wires feeding into its 70 percent charged battery.

“It may still be live. We’re not sure. Because of the extent of the damage from the fire,” said Mountain View Fire battalion chief Zack Bond.

Tesla’s “First Responder” website has instructions in case one of its vehicles catches fire. Those instructions state to use large amounts of water – about 3,000 gallons -- to fight a high-voltage battery fire. It also instructs ton use disconnects that come with each car to safely remove battery components.

“The orange lines that are on the ground run high voltage through the vehicle as we understand it. And because they’ve been severed completely, and the disconnects are not available to us, we can’t be one-hundred percent sure that the vehicle’s been made safe for tow personnel or first responders to get close to,” said Bond.

Firefighters and CHP officers waited several hours for Tesla engineers to arrive, and then begin the painstaking task of making sure the battery was safe. They removed components one at a time, soaking each in a solution, before discarding. The all clear was given shortly before the afternoon rush began in earnest.

CHP officers stress this is a new thing for them and firefighters, as all first responders learn the dos and don’ts associated with electric cars. The drivers of the other two cars involved in this accident were not injured and are cooperating with investigators. The CHP hasn’t released an official cause but they say it doesn’t appear speed was a factor.