Clearing Up the Confusion: Tesla Model S Crash Test Safety Score Versus the NHTSA’s Slap-on-the-Wrist Response

1 year ago by Eric Loveday 4

Model S Side Pole Test

Model S Side Pole Test

Impact Point

Impact Point Side Door Model S

Within days of Tesla reporting that the Model S set a new NHTSA Vehicle Safety Score Record, the NHTSA responding by posting this (alongside an image of the crashed Model S) on its website:

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is committed to improving safety on the nation’s roadways and helping motorists make informed decisions about new or used vehicles they are considering purchasing. The agency’s 5-Star Safety Ratings program is designed to provide consumers with information about the crash protection and rollover safety of new vehicles beyond what is required by Federal standards. One star is the lowest rating; five stars is the highest. More stars equal safer cars. NHTSA does not rate vehicles beyond 5 stars and does not rank or order vehicles within the star rating categories. In addition, the agency has guidelines in place for manufacturers and advertising agencies to follow to ensure that accurate and consistent information is conveyed to the public.”

The NHTSA is obviously  implying that Tesla made a few mistakes in reporting on Model S safety.  Let’s examine what the NHTSA is trying to say versus what Tesla actually stated (note: Tesla’s original press release on the subject of NHTSA crash-test safety has not been altered due to the NHTSA’s response).

NHTSA:  NHTSA does not rate vehicles beyond 5 stars and does not rank or order vehicles within the star rating categories.

Tesla Model S VSS Score

Tesla Model S VSS Score

Tesla: Independent testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has awarded the Tesla Model S a 5-star safety rating, not just overall, but in every subcategory without exception. Approximately one percent of all cars tested by the federal government achieve 5 stars across the board. NHTSA does not publish a star rating above 5, however safety levels better than 5 stars are captured in the overall Vehicle Safety Score (VSS) provided to manufacturers, where the Model S achieved a new combined record of 5.4 stars.

Where did Tesla go wrong?  Tesla should have stated that the Model S Vehicle Safety Score was 5.4 and not have stated 5.4 stars.  A minor detail that any reasonable individual would overlook as it’s the same result, but the NHTSA isn’t thrilled with Tesla using the word “stars” there.  Trivial?  We think so.

NHTSA: In addition, the agency has guidelines in place for manufacturers and advertising agencies to follow to ensure that accurate and consistent information is conveyed to the public.

NHTSA Guidelines: NHTSA strongly discourages the use of potentially misleading words such as “perfect,” “safest,” “flawless” or “best in class” to describe the star rating received by the vehicle. More acceptable phrases to describe a vehicle receiving a 5-star rating would include phrases such as “highest” or “maximum” safety rating or “top” safety ratings or score.

Tesla: Tesla Model S Achieves Best Safety Rating of Any Car Tested (headline of press release)

Side Pole Impact With Airbag Deployment

Side Pole Impact With Airbag Deployment

C’mon Tesla…you know you can’t say “best.”  Would it make any difference if Tesla reworded its headline to read: Tesla Model S Achieves Highest Safety Rating?  No. the result is still the same.  Nothing has changed but a few words that the NHTSA doesn’t want used.  The result still stands.

NHTSA: Advertisements that competitively compare frontal crash star ratings or Overall Vehicle Scores of two or more vehicles should occur only if the vehicles being compared are within 250 pounds of each other and within the same vehicle class. Comparisons for frontal crash ratings or Overall Vehicle Scores should not be implied between vehicles where the difference in weight exceeds 250 pounds or the vehicles are of different body styles (e.g., comparisons between a sedan and an SUV, even if of similar mass).

Tesla: Of all vehicles tested, including every major make and model approved for sale in the United States, the Model S set a new record for the lowest likelihood of injury to occupants. While the Model S is a sedan, it also exceeded the safety score of all SUVs and minivans.

Scores Higher Than All Minivans and SUVs

Scores Higher Than All Minivans and SUVs

Here Tesla is making a comparison that the NHTSA doesn’t approve of “Model S is  a sedan, it also exceeded the safety score of all SUVs and minivans.”  The NHTSA would rather not see sedan and SUV/minivan appear in any safety comparison statement.  Once again, this does not change the Model S’ score, nor does it mean that the Model S is less safe than Tesla claims.  There is no dispute of the Model S’ 5.4 VSS, which is still the highest of any vehicle tested by the NHTSA, including SUVs and minivans.

So, where did Tesla go wrong?  Did Tesla do wrong?  As we see it, the NHTSA is being overly picky and maybe Tesla’s copy editor failed to fully comprehend all of the NHTSA’s confusing “guidelines,” but in no way does any of this imply that the Model S is less safe than Tesla claims.

We don’t have to follow those “guidelines,” so we’ll tell it like it is: the Tesla Model S is the safest vehicle ever tested by the NHTSA.  And no minivan or SUV can match the Model S’ VSS score of 5.4.  When it come to NHTSA crash test results, the Model S is the best.

“Guidelines” get thrown out the door here.

Source: Tesla Motors

 

 

 

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4 responses to "Clearing Up the Confusion: Tesla Model S Crash Test Safety Score Versus the NHTSA’s Slap-on-the-Wrist Response"

  1. Tom A. says:

    Thank you for the clarification. Most people just want an excuse to bash Tesla Motors.

    However, I do understand the NHTSA being touchy with the “5.4 Stars” since that can be quoted and cited anywhere without the qualification that Tesla appropriately included in the press release.

    Meaning, Tesla didn’t do anything wrong per se, but the NHTSA certainly doesn’t want its rating system to be called into question. Particularly when gov’t agencies continue to get unwarranted, vicious attacks from Big Media, the NHTSA probably considered it pre-emptive damage control, emphasizing their standards of reporting so that the public is clear on what their ratings mean. That way, they attempt to maintain confidence in the reporting system as the accepted national standard.

    I think Tesla should come out with a revised press release to make the two corrections you noted: changing “5.4 stars” to “a VSS of 5.4″; and changing “best” to “highest”.

    I also think this whole manufactured fiasco points out something more important: the NHTSA rating system is inadequate. EVs (or at least Teslas) are defining new, achievable levels of safety.

    I’m curious: how do they label “5 stars” or “4 stars”? Is a “5 star” rating awarded to any vehicle that scores between 4.5 and 5.4? Then is the “4 star” rating awarded for a VSS score between 3.5 and 4.4?

    1. No Kool-Aid says:

      Regarding this part:
      “I also think this whole manufactured fiasco points out something more important: the NHTSA rating system is inadequate. EVs (or at least Teslas) are defining new, achievable levels of safety.”

      EVs aren’t defining new safety levels. The Leaf was rated 4 stars overall, and failed to score above 4 stars on any test. Automakers continually improve safety and NHTSA and IIHS update their tests.

      Tesla made an outstanding car, and it performed very well in the NHTSA safety tests. For as much money as it is, and considering it is a new model, it really should have. Keep in mind, these aren’t the only tests out there in the world. NHTSA’s tests don’t do the best job of testing cars with mismatched heights. The new Cadillac ATS is relatively small, and achieved 5 stars in each test. Would I bet on it against an Excursion with a few extra inches of lift in an intersection – not so sure.

      I’d take either the ATS or the Model S against that same excursion for avoiding rollovers or collisions in general. However, it looks like the Model S doesn’t have forward collision or lane departure warning, while some other cars that scored 5 stars in all tests do. This does not affect the Model S rating in any way, because NHTSA does NOT factor in crash avoidance.

      If (and yes it is an if) the 5.4 is the current highest there was obviously another car that was the highest prior to this. Why didn’t we hear about that score? Other automakers don’t tout their vss score, do they? I’ve searched the NHTSA’s site and haven’t been able to find vss scores for any vehicles — I’d be interested in knowing if they are available.

      It looks like there are many recently redesigned models that are yet to even be tested.

      I like the Model S a lot, but I’m getting tired of the over the top marketing that pushes the truth too much.

  2. Foo says:

    So, does the NHTSA “round down” with star ratings? That is, if your vehicle fails to get a 5-star rating (say, got 4.9), then it just receives a 4-star rating? But, then so would another, less-safe vehicle that got only 4.1? Seem like the public should know when making a purchase decision between two vehicles with 4.1 and 4.9 ratings, no? That’s a huge difference.

  3. Rick Danger says:

    I propose the NHTSA use a system of colored blocks in place of stars:
    Red block = 1 star
    Orange block = 2 stars
    Yellow block = 3 stars
    Blue block = 4 stars
    Green block = 5 stars

    This removes the complexity of actually counting stars and gives a quick color-coded reference.
    For the color blind among us, the color could be spelled out below the block. :)

    OR, they could just give us the numbers to 1 decimal place. I think we as a society can handle it.