Remarkably, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has awarded the Tesla Model S a 5-star safety rating in every subcategory across its rigorous crash-testing criteria. The Model S is an all-electric offering in the emerging space between premium and green vehicles. Only about 1 percent of cars tested by the federal government achieve this success in independent testing. Although NHTSA does not publish a star rating above five, safety levels better than five stars are reported in the overall Vehicle Safety Score (VSS) provided to manufacturers, in which the Model S achieved 5.4 stars, an all-time combined record.
Thus, the Tesla Model S offers the lowest likelihood of injury to passengers — in front, side, rear and rollover accidents — out of every major make and model sold in the U.S., outdoing Volvo, Mercedes, Honda and all the other mainstream brands known for superior safety engineering. Furthermore, the model S sedan exceeded the safety scores of all SUVs and minivans, which are larger and more physically durable than passenger cars.
A major advantage for the Model S in frontal crashes is not having a large gasoline engine block under its hood. The absence of a conventional motor creates a much longer crumple zone to absorb impact. In other words, this creates a greater distance between the collision point at the front of the vehicle and the occupants within the vehicle. The Model S has a small motor housed at the rear of the car, while the front section is essentially an open cavity used as a second trunk.
Side impact testing may be the most difficult in which to score well, but of all the top vehicles tested the Model S was the only one placed in the top-ranked Good category. The reason for this is the multiple reinforcements to the side rails of the Model S, which absorb crash energy and transfer load to the rest of the vehicle.
The Tesla sedan also excelled in rear collision testing. This test is especially important due to the vehicle’s optional third-row child’s seat. To minimize the effects of such accidents, Tesla has installed a double bumper at the rear of the car.
The Model S demonstrated a very low risk of rollover, as well. Even in testing, the car would not leave its upright position by normal means, thus requiring special methods to cause it to roll to its roof. This exceptional stability is attributed to the vehicle’s low center of gravity, which is the direct result of the battery pack being mounted below the floor pan.
If all that wasn’t enough, the Model S has a very strong roof structure that does not easily cave in or crush under weight. So strong, in fact, that NHTSA’s roof-strength testing machine broke while trying to crush the Tesla from its top side. This is due to a specially bolted B-pillar reinforcement in the Model S.
Last, the Model S’s lithium-ion battery did not catch fire during NHTSA’s crash testing. This is worth noting because electric battery packs have been known to burst into flames after crashes, due to heat and stability issues.
In 2011, the already demanding NHTSA standards were revised to make it even more difficult to achieve a high safety rating. What does it say that the Tesla Model S, a niche all-electric sedan from a startup carmaker, would be the one to score top marks? Perhaps all could attain world-class safety.