Tesla's Top Safety Score: The Answer is in the Stars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Aug 24, 2013

Tesla is given to superlatives, but when the company claimed that Consumer Reports had just given the Model S its highest rating ever, there was plenty of evidence. But when Tesla said this week that the S had achieved the “best safety rating of any car ever tested” in federal crashes, it was on much shakier ground.

The Tesla hits a wall--and survives impressively. (NHTSA photo)
The Tesla hits a wall--and survives impressively. (NHTSA photo)

Tesla said that, although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) doesn’t award more than five stars, an analysis of the data provided to carmakers showed the car achieving “a new combined record of 5.4 stars.” Like they said, better than any other car, ever.

I know something about this kind of thing because, in a 4.0 rating system, my daughter somehow managed to score well above 4.0. It’s like “perfect-plus.” But, in fact, NHTSA doesn’t work that way. The agency issued a statement saying, “One star is the lowest rating; five stars is the highest rating….NHTSA does not rate vehicles beyond five stars and does not rank or order vehicles within the star rating categories.”

Ouch. But Tesla wasn’t just making things up. NHTSA’s data not released to the public includes a Vehicle Safety Score (VSS), with the lowest score being the best. Clarence Ditlow, who heads the Center for Auto Safety, said Tesla did indeed do better than anyone else there, with a VSS score of .42 (compared to the next highest car, a 2012 Chevy Camaro, with .47). That’s why Tesla says it “set a new record for the lowest likelihood of injury to occupants.” But the automaker wasn’t actually awarded 5.4 stars. In fact, it got the same perfect rating as such five-star-all-around cars as Cadillac ATS (AWD and RWD, with a VSS of .53) and Honda Accord (two-door, FWD, VSS of .53).

Ditlow, who looked at NHTSA records from 2011 to 2014, told me, “No matter what, you can’t say the Tesla is the safest car ever tested, just that it had the best overall test score of any vehicle tested by NHTSA. That’s very laudable and every other manufacturer should strive to surpass Tesla.” Another way of looking at it, Ditlow said: “The average weighted injury score for the Tesla is the best of any vehicle tested” by the agency. Impressive by any measure.

Despite great crash survivability ratings, the Tesla Model S got the same five stars as Cadillacs and Hondas. (NHTSA photo)
Despite great crash survivability ratings, the Tesla Model S got the same five stars as Cadillacs and Hondas. (NHTSA photo)

Claiming to be the best in the world is simply an ingrained part of CEO Elon Musk’s personality. On the company’s blog recently, Tesla said it has “the world’s best service and warranty program.” Musk has repeatedly said that his goal is not to build the best electric car, but the best car, period, in the world. He’s clearly not prepared to be Avis to somebody else’s Hertz.

This is what fascinates people about Musk—the Steve Jobs-like intensity, the complete failure to defer to the old hands in the auto business, and the ardent refusal to allow his cars to be anything other than the best. In the world. The crazy thing is that, most of the time, he backs up what he says. He’s been right often enough that the stock is going nuts and automakers like GM are forming Elonwatch task forces.

Elon Musk, says Yahoo Finance, “is done asking people to do anything. He's telling suppliers, municipalities and even competitors what to do. There’s a very good chance they’re going to listen.”

As for Tesla and their greater-than-the-highest-score possible math, Communications Manager Shanna Hendriks said, "We stand by what was written in the press release."

Here's Tesla's crash video, courtesy of NHTSA:

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