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Tesla Motors, Inc (TSLA): How Model S Crushed 5-Star Safety Tests?

 August 21, 2013 09:28 AM


Elon Musk and his company Tesla Motors, Inc. (NASDAQ:TSLA) are on a dream run, with positive developments coming out more frequently than ever.

Now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has awarded Tesla's Model S the highest overall vehicle safety score ever, earning a new combined record of 5.4 stars.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) created the 5-Star Safety Ratings Program to provide consumers with information about crash protection and rollover safety of new vehicles beyond what is required by Federal law. One star is the lowest rating; five stars is the highest. More stars equal safer cars.

Tesla Model S got 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, according to Tesla.

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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. This score takes into account the probability of injury from front, side, rear and rollover accidents. This is another feather in the cap of Tesla, which went public in 2010.

With this rating, Model S joins more established vehicles such as the 2013 Kia Optima, Honda Accord and Volvo S60 in scoring maximum marks in all impact tests.

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Let's see how Tesla managed to crush the safety tests.

The Model S benefits from not having a large gasoline engine block in the front, thus creating a much longer crumple zone to absorb a high speed impact. The Model S motor is only about a foot in diameter and is mounted close to the rear axle, and the front section that would normally contain a gasoline engine is used for a second trunk.

For the side pole intrusion test, considered one of the most difficult to pass, the Model S was the only car in the "good" category among the other top one percent of vehicles tested. Compared to the Volvo S60, which is also 5-star rated in all categories, the Model S preserved 63.5 percent of driver residual space compared to 7.8 percent for the Volvo.

Tesla achieved the above outcome by putting multiple deep aluminum extrusions in the side rail of the car that absorb the impact energy and transfer load to the rest of the vehicle. This causes the pole to be either sheared off or to stop the car before the pole hits an occupant.

For the key, rear crash testing, Tesla factory installs a double bumper if the third row seat is ordered. This was needed in order to protect against a highway speed impact in the rear with no permanently disabling injury to the third row occupants. The third row is already the safest location in the car for frontal or side injuries.

The Model S was also substantially better in rollover risk, with the other top vehicles being approximately 50 percent worse. During testing, special means were needed to induce the car to roll. The credit goes to the battery pack that is mounted below the floor pan, providing a exceptionally low center of gravity, which simultaneously ensures better handling and safety.

In addition, a machine used in the roof-crush test broke while attempting to cave in the Model S roof. The testing machine failed at just above 4 g's. This is achieved primarily through a center (B) pillar reinforcement attached via aerospace grade bolts.

"While the exact number is uncertain due to Model S breaking the testing machine, what this means is that at least four additional fully loaded Model S vehicles could be placed on top of an owner's car without the roof caving in," Tesla said.

However, the key takeaway from the safety tests is the Model S lithium-ion battery did not catch fire at any time before, during or after the NHTSA testing. It is worth mentioning that no production Tesla lithium-ion battery has ever caught fire in the Model S or Roadster, despite several high speed impacts. This is significant as there have been repeated cases of lithium-ion battery catching fires, most notably on Boeing‘s 787.

The Model S, which is on-track to hit sales of over 20,000 units this year, is the best-selling U.S. electric car despite high starting price of $70,000 before a federal tax credit. The company sold 5,150 cars in the second quarter and expects to sell 21,000 cars this year.

For all premium sedan buyers, if safety is your priority than budget, then Model S is currently the best bet. After all, it got a big thumbs up from almost all the leading critics. Consumer Reports awarded it a near-perfect score of 99 out of 100 while it also grabbed the Motor Trends "2013 Car of the Year."

According to Jake Fisher, director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, "It's faster; it's quieter; it's roomier; it rides better."

Maybe he should add one more thing now – it's safer.

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