A still from CCTV footage shows smoke billowing from the bottom of a Tesla Model S sedan before it burst into flames. Photo: Weibo

A burning Tesla Model S sedan in Shanghai that exploded, sparking a conflagration that gutted an underground parking lot, may dent the US carmaker’s aggressive inroads into China.

Little was left of the three-year-old electric car after the Sunday evening fire that also engulfed a dozen other expensive cars including an Audi, a Lexus and a Bentley parked nearby. Firefighters summoned immediately to the upmarket residential estate in Shanghai’s Xuhui district took an hour and a half to douse the raging fire, and water also inundated cars parked on the second floor of the garage, according to local papers. Luckily, no one was injured.

A firefighter examines the wreckage of the Tesla. Photo: Weibo

The hapless Tesla owner surnamed Huang told reporters that a fireball broke out in his car at around 8:20pm. The car was still in mint condition, having done about 60,000 kilometers. Huang may face compensation claims from other car owners affected as he was turned away by his insurance company which claimed his policy did not cover the incident. Huang, a fan of Tesla chief Elon Musk, spent 1 million yuan (US$150,000) for the sleek hatchback in 2016.

He said he was unaware of the explosion until he smelled smoke and saw a fire engine downstairs. He insisted that the car was not being charged, and nor did it contain any dangerous goods, contrary to rumors that the car was wired to an uncertified charger at the time of the incident. However, he did recharge the car’s battery at a Tesla supercharger about an hour before the fire.

“I left my car only 30 minutes before it caught on fire. I could not imagine what would have happened to me if I was inside it,” said the Tesla driver. Another car driver told NetEase Auto that he heard a dozen explosions.

An investigation is under way and Tesla China has said it will cooperate.

Footage of the Tesla billowing smoke before bursting into flames, caught on the parking lot’s surveillance cameras, quickly went viral on social media across the country, prompting car owners to question the safety of Tesla and other new-energy vehicles.

This is not the first time that a Tesla has caught fire in China. In March, another Model S burst into flames in Guangzhou; it was not being charged at the time, and had previously suffered no accidents.

Approximately 40 similar incidents involving wiring and battery packs have affected electric cars in China in the past year. The country now has around 2.6 million electric and other alternative power vehicles on the road. Some 135,700 new-energy cars were recalled during the same period.

Tesla chief Elon Musk is seen at a fanfare launch ceremony of a new factory in Shanghai in January. Photo: Reuters

China has been pushing for more alternatively powered cars to clean up its air and drive growth in new industries, and the nation already boasts one of the world’s largest electric-vehicle populations. China’s consumer watchdog has said there was no evidence suggesting electric cars were any more dangerous than traditional, fossil-fueled vehicles.

Musk was in Shanghai this January to kickstart the operation of its US$2 billion “gigafactory” on the outskirts of the city, which has a target output of half a million cars per year. The factory is billed as one of the largest foreign investment projects in China, as Musk targets a broader market with reduced sticker prices on its sleek sedans powered by lithium-ion batteries.

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