More Tesla Motors coverage

PALO ALTO -- J.B. Straubel, chief technical officer of Tesla Motors (TSLA), defended the performance of the Model S sedan that caught fire last week during remarks Tuesday at an energy symposium at Stanford University.

"It's a scary event," Straubel said of the fire. "We don't want to ever have a fire, but stuff happens in the real world. The big difference is the car was in an accident. There was a collision. There's a world of difference between an accident or collision and a spontaneous fire."

JB Straubel, Tesla Motors chief technical officer, speaks during a ribbon cutting for a new Supercharger station outside of the Tesla Factory on August 16,
JB Straubel, Tesla Motors chief technical officer, speaks during a ribbon cutting for a new Supercharger station outside of the Tesla Factory on August 16, 2013 in Fremont, California. ( (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images))

Last week, a Model S owner in Washington state ran over a piece of metal that pierced the battery pack of the car, causing a fire. A video of the fire quickly went viral and sent Tesla's stock price skidding. CEO Elon Musk published a lengthy blog post about the incident, stressing that safeguards in the battery pack kept the fire from spreading to the passenger cabin.

Straubel echoed those comments Tuesday, stressing that Tesla spent so much time on safety engineering that the original launch of the Model S was delayed.

"The vehicle performed great," Straubel said of last week's accident. "We have firewalls built inside the battery system so that's the only part that is affected. The fire didn't get into the cabin, and the driver of the vehicle was hugely appreciative."

Straubel, a Stanford engineering graduate who oversees all software, electronics and propulsion in Tesla's vehicles, has been with the company since it was founded. He joined venture capitalist Ira Ehrenpreis, an early Tesla investor, board member and longtime champion of cleantech, in a "fireside chat" Tuesday at Stanford's Global Climate & Energy Project Research Symposium.

Straubel said driverless cars are "inevitable."

"Autopilot will be inevitable and transformational for cars, and not just electric cars," Straubel said. "We're investing quite a bit of time in this, and we're investing in a large team. I think this will happen sooner than people think. Every airplane has autopilot. In cars, vehicle drivers are probably the least trained operators. This will have a huge, positive impact on transportation safety."

Ehrenpreis asked Straubel about areas of innovation that Stanford students should focus on.

"Follow what you find fun," Straubel said. "Don't try to follow the megatrend that will be profitable. Follow what you are incredibly passionate about. Energy storage and renewable energy are the two issues that will be with us for decades to come. ... The biggest single need in batteries is cheaper energy storage, without sacrificing safety. It's a massive opportunity."

Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.